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Into the Western Canon (by Gillian Wigmore)
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Into the Western Canon (by Gillian Wigmore)

By 49thShelf
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I started to cry, sitting in a third year English class, listening to Smaro Kambourelli introduce the central BC setting of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. I tried to hide it, but I hadn’t known I was missing my own landscapes in Canadian literature so badly. It was that day, that class, and that incredible academic who introduced me to the canon I wanted to write toward, but it was further reading into these books that convinced me that the best books are ones that require work, that engage the imagination and don’t fill in all the blanks. These are the books that make me want to write into and from the west. *** Gillian Wigmore grew up in Vanderhoof, BC, and graduated from the University of Victoria in 1999. She has been published in Geist, CV2, filling station, and the Inner Harbour Review, among others. Wigmore won the 2008 ReLit Award for her work Soft Geography and was also shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay BC Book Prize. She lives in north central BC with her husband and two children. Her latest book is Dirt of Ages.
Tay John

Tay John

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : classics
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Excerpt

One

The time of this in its beginning, in men’s time, is 1880 in the summer, and its place is the Athabaska valley, near its head in the mountains, and along the other waters falling into it, and beyond them a bit, over Yellowhead Pass to the westward, where the Fraser, rising in a lake, flows through wilderness and canyon down to the Pacific.

In those days Canada was without a railway across the mountains. The Canadian Pacific was being built, but it was not till 1885 that the first train steamed over its rails to reach tidewater at Port Moody. Its crossing of the Rocky Mountains was by Kicking Horse Pass, more than two hundred miles to the south of Yellowhead. So that it might be built and that men might gain money from its building, Canada was made a dominion. British Columbia, a colony of England, became the most western province of the territory now stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In time another railway was built. It was called the Grand Trunk Pacific, and passed through the mountains at Yellowhead. That was in 1911.

Until that happened the country around Yellowhead and on the headwaters of the Athabaska, the Arctic’s most southern slope, was little changed from what it had always been. It was a game country, and men found meat when they travelled. In the summer the days were long and the nights only brief twilight between the sun’s setting and rising. Pine- and fir-trees grew in the valleys, and good grass on the flats and benches; and higher on the mountain slopes, close to the rock and snow, spruce and balsam. Poplar, birch and alder, and tall willows grew in the river bottoms; and everywhere was the sound of running water. In the winters the nights were long. Streams and lakes were frozen. Frost split trees. The wind blew up the Athabaska from the north, and blizzards rose in the valley. Still, sometimes it would be quiet, with the sun shining, and then a man’s voice talking could be heard two miles away across the snow.

For a long time fur brigades from Hudson Bay and Fort Garry on the prairies travelled the Athabaska valley. They used horses in the summer and dog-teams in the winter. At first they followed the river to its head, and at the Committee’s Punchbowl met those who had come up from the Columbia river valley with beaver skins. For these they exchanged rum and leather and pemmican and came back with the fur eastward. When the lower Columbia valley turned to the Americans and became part of their nation, the brigades swung out of the Athabaska lower down and crossed the mountains at Yellowhead Pass to trade with the Indians and white trappers along the Fraser as far down as Fort Prince George. In time the people around Fort Prince George began to send their furs out by the new Cariboo road to the Pacific, and fur brigades then ceased to travel through the Athabaska valley. The posts they had built in good places where there was game and fish, feed for their horses, and wood for their fires, were no longer used. Their roofs caved in under the snow, and wind blew the moss chinking from between the logs that walled them. Grass grew in the ruts of the trails. Along the trails “blazes,” filled with yellow pitch, burned into the tree bark with no one to see them, like lanterns left and forgotten.

In 1880 one man remained by the Athabaska river where it flowed through the mountains. He was tall, fair-haired and fair-bearded, and his blue eyes, stung with the snow, streamed with water when he stood outside and faced the sun. He lived in a cabin on a point above the river where the trail leaves it to follow the Miette to Yellowhead Pass. He trapped and hunted, and traded with bands of wandering Indians. Once a year, in the spring, he took his furs eastward out of the mountains by pack-horse to Edmonton. He was named Red Rorty, and was thought by himself and some others to be a strong man because sometimes on a still day he could be heard shouting from five miles off. He shouted at his horses when they were hard to catch, or at an Indian who had brought poor furs to trade. At other times he would shout when there was nothing to shout for, and would listen and smile when the mountains hurled his voice — rolled it from one rock wall to another, until it seemed he heard bands of men, loosed above him, calling one to another as they climbed farther and higher into the rock and ice.

Much alone, he was given to hearing strange sounds and to seeing a tree far off as a man, or a bunch of trees down the valley from his cabin as a group of men advancing towards him. So that he could see better what was around him and that no one might come upon him unawares, he had made a wide clearing around his cabin, which he kept free of willows and all bush tending to grow there. A pine-tree on the edge of the clearing, ninety yards from his door, was marked with lead from his rifle because of the times in the moonlight he had looked out and thought he saw it moving before him.

His cabin — tidy, with hard earth for its floor — held a stove, a table, a bed, and a bench to sit on. Pack-saddles, bridles, and blankets were hung by its door under the eaves. Its logs were white-washed, so that it gleamed against his eyes from far off when he returned from hunting.

Red Rorty was the first son of many born on a homestead in Bruce County in Ontario. He came west when he was young and worked on the land near Fort Carry. After a while he got a job wrangling horses on a party sent out to the mountains to line the rivers into the contours of the land. When the party disbanded at Edmonton he returned to the Athabaska valley with four horses and the money he had saved, and built himself a cabin — for of all the country he had seen he liked it the best.

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Why it's on the list ...
Tay John dropped kicked the novel and turned it inside out—post-modern before post-modernism, it subverted the form and absolutely enchanted me. A novel set in northern Alberta written in biblical tones with a word-of-mouth protagonist who never gets to tell his own story? Yes, please.
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The Double Hook

The Double Hook

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Excerpt

1
In the folds of the hills

under Coyote’s eye

lived

the old lady, mother of William
of James and of Greta

lived James and Greta
lived William and Ara his wife
lived the Widow Wagner
the Widow’s girl Lenchen
the Widow’s boy
lived Felix Prosper and Angel
lived Theophil
and Kip

until one morning in July

Greta was at the stove. Turning hotcakes. Reaching for the coffee beans. Grinding away James’s voice.

James was at the top of the stairs. His hand half-raised. His voice in the rafters.

James walking away. The old lady falling. There under the jaw of the roof. In the vault of the bed loft. Into the shadow of death. Pushed by James’s will. By James’s hand. By James’s words: This is my day. You’ll not fish today.

2

Still the old lady fished. If the reeds had dried up and the banks folded and crumbled down she would have fished still. If God had come into the valley, come holding out the long finger of salvation, moaning in the darkness, thundering down the gap at the lake head, skimming across the water, drying up the blue signature like blotting-paper, asking where, asking why, defying an answer, she would have thrown her line against the rebuke; she would have caught a piece of mud and looked it over; she would have drawn a line with the barb when the fire of righteousness baked the bottom.

3

Ara saw her fishing along the creek. Fishing shamelessly with bait. Fishing without a glance towards her daughter-in-law, who was hanging washing on the bushes near the rail fence.

I might as well be dead for all of her, Ara said. Passing her own son’s house and never offering a fry even today when he’s off and gone with the post.

The old lady fished on with a concentrated ferocity as if she were fishing for something she’d never found.

Ara hung William’s drawers on a rail. She had covered the bushes with towels.

Then she looked out from under her shag of bangs at the old lady’s back.

It’s not for fish she fishes, Ara thought. There’s only three of them. They can’t eat all the fish she’d catch.

William would try to explain, but he couldn’t. He only felt, but he always felt he knew. He could give half a dozen reasons for anything. When a woman on his route flagged him down with a coat and asked him to bring back a spool of thread from the town below, he’d explain that thread has a hundred uses. When it comes down to it, he’d say, there’s no telling what thread is for. I knew a woman once, he’d say, who used it to sew up her man after he was throwed on a barbed-wire fence.

Ara could hear the cow mumbling dry grass by the bushes. There was no other sound.

The old lady was rounding the bend of the creek. She was throwing her line into a rock pool. She was fishing upstream to the source. That way she’d come to the bones of the hills and the flats between where the herd cows ranged. They’d turn their tails to her and stretch their hides tight. They’d turn their living flesh from her as she’d turned hers from others.

The water was running low in the creek. Except in the pools, it would be hardly up to the ankle. Yet as she watched the old lady, Ara felt death leaking through from the centre of the earth. Death rising to the knee. Death rising to the loin.

She raised her chin to unseat the thought. No such thing could happen. The water was drying away. It lay only in the deep pools.

Ara wasn’t sure where water started.

William wouldn’t hesitate: It comes gurgling up from inside the hill over beyond the lake. There’s water over and it falls down. There’s water under and it rushes up. The trouble with water is it never rushes at the right time. The creeks dry up and the grass with them. There are men, he’d say, have seen their whole place fade like a cheap shirt. And there’s no way a man can fold it up and bring it in out of the sun. You can save a cabbage plant or a tomato plant with tents of paper if you’ve got the paper, but there’s no human being living can tent a field and pasture.

I’ve seen cows, he’d say, with lard running off them into the ground. The most unaccountable thing, he’d say, is the way the sun falls. I’ve seen a great cow, he’d say, throw no more shadow for its calf than a lean rabbit.

Ara looked over the fence. There was no one on the road. It lay white across the burnt grass.

Coyote made the land his pastime. He stretched out his paw. He breathed on the grass. His spittle eyed it with prickly pear.

Ara went into the house. She filled the basin at the pump in the kitchen and cooled her feet in the water.

We’ve never had a pump in our house all the years we’ve lived here, she’d heard Greta say. Someday, she’d say, you’ll lift the handle and stand waiting till eternity. James brings water in barrels from the spring. The thing about a barrel is you take it where you take it. There’s something fixed about a pump, fixed and uncertain.

Ara went to the door. She threw the water from the basin into the dust. She watched the water roll in balls on the ground. Roll and divide and spin.

The old lady had disappeared.

Ara put on a straw hat. She tied it with a bootlace under the chin. She wiped the top of the table with her apron which she threw behind a pile of papers in the corner. She went to the fence and leaned against the rails.

If a man lost the road in the land round William Potter’s, he couldn’t find his way by keeping to the creek bottom for the creek flowed this way and that at the land’s whim. The earth fell away in hills and clefts as if it had been dropped carelessly wrinkled on the bare floor of the world.

Even God’s eye could not spy out the men lost here already, Ara thought. He had looked mercifully on the people of Nineveh though they did not know their right hand and their left. But there were not enough people here to attract his attention. The cattle were scrub cattle. The men lay like sift in the cracks of the earth.

Standing against the rails of the fence, she looked out over the yellow grass. The empty road leading from James’s gate went on from William’s past the streaked hills, past the Wagners’, down over the culvert, past Felix Prosper’s.

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Why it's on the list ...
The Double Hook meanders up and down a small creek in the central BC interior. Holey and unholy, musical, musing and frustrating all at once—it tells (or doesn’t) the tale of a murder (mercy-killing?) of a mother, but the unusual way in which it does this (or doesn’t) teaches me that a novel is an ethereal thing. I go back to this book for permission to write and for affirmation that different works— it can shake up the world.
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The Studhorse Man
Why it's on the list ...
Oh Kroetsch! The Studhorse Man, Hazard LePage, a giant in his own mind, remains a giant in mine. His haphazard journey searching out mares for his studhorse, Poseidon, to breed, his escapades through Edmonton, the wild characters he meets and the Alberta landscape, all roil into a novel that I open to see where I could go, if I am so adventurous as Kroetsch, with my own novels. I wouldn’t want to meet Hazard Lepage, and I certainly wouldn’t let my rare blue stallion, live and eat and defecate in my dining room, but this funny and crazy book calls me back.
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Truth And Bright Water
Why it's on the list ...
Tom King’s novel of two cousins negotiating coming of age in a place fraught with pitfalls and history, disappearing churches and wild dogs, is mythic and funny, and so close true to life, despite the flights from realism, it hurts. King writes the town and the Indian Reserve and the characters who people them, to life, and it’s this, as well as his humour in the face of too much humanity, that make me want to do my own characters and places justice.
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Monkey Beach
Excerpt

Six crows sit in our greengage tree. Half-awake, I hear them speak to me in Haisla.
La'es, they say, La'es, la'es.
I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they launch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its dark head.
La'es — Go down to the bottom of the ocean. The word means something else, but I can't remember what. I had too much coffee last night after the Coast Guard called with the news about Jimmy. People pressed cups and cups of it into my hands. Must have fallen asleep fourish. On the nightstand, the clock-face has a badly painted Elvis caught in mid-gyrate. Jimmy found it at a garage sale and gave it to me last year for my birthday — that and a card that said, "Hap B-day, sis! How does it feel to be almost two decades old? Rock on, Grandma!" The Elvis clock says the time is seven-thirty, but it's always either an hour ahead or an hour behind. We always joke that it's on Indian time. I go to my dresser and pull out my first cigarette of the day, then return to the window and smoke. An orange cat pauses at the grassy shoreline, alert. It flicks its tail back and forth, then bounds up the beach and into a tangle of bushes near our neighbour's house. The crows are tiny black dots against a faded denim sky. In the distance, I hear a speedboat. For the last week, I have been dreaming about the ocean-lapping softly against the hull of a boat, hissing as it rolls gravel up a beach, ocean swells hammering the shore, lifting off the rocks in an ethereal spray before the waves make a grumbling retreat. Such a lovely day. Late summer. Warm. Look at the pretty, fluffy clouds. Weather reports are all favourable for the area where his seiner went missing. Jimmy's a good swimmer. Everyone says this like a mantra that will keep him safe. No one's as optimistic about his skipper, Josh, a hefty good-time guy who is very popular for his generosity at bars and parties. He is also heavily in debt and has had a bad fishing season. Earlier this summer two of his crew quit, bitterly complaining to their relatives that he didn't pay them all they were due. They came by last night to show their support. One of my cousins said they've been spreading rumours that Josh might have sunk his Queen of the North for the insurance and that Jimmy's inexperience on the water would make him a perfect scapegoat. They were whispering to other visitors last night, but Aunt Edith glared at them until they took the hint and left.

I stub out the cigarette and take the steps two at a time down to the kitchen. My father's at the table, smoking. His ashtray is overflowing. He glances at me, eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed.

Did you hear the crows earlier?" I say. When he doesn't answer, I find myself babbling. "They were talking to me. They said la'es. It's probably — "

"Clearly a sign, Lisa," my mother has come up behind me and grips my shoulders, "that you need Prozac." She steers me to a chair and pushes me down. Dad's old VHF is tuned to the emergency channel. Normally, we have the radio tuned to CFTK. He likes it loud, and the morning soft rock usually rackets through the house. As we sit in silence, I watch his cigarette burn down in the ashtray. Mom smoothes her hair. She keeps touching it. They both have that glazed, drawn look of people who haven't slept. I have this urge to turn on some music. If they had found the seiner, someone would phone us. "Pan, pan, pan," a woman's voice crackles over the VHF. "All stations, this is the Prince Rupert Coast Guard." She repeats everything three times, I don't know why. "We have an overdue vessel." She goes on to describe a gillnetter that should have been in Rupert four days ago. Mom and Dad tense expectantly even though this has nothing to do with Jimmy.

At any given moment, there are two thousand storms at sea.

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Why it's on the list ...
I felt like I’d been waiting for this book for a long time—a gothic/aboriginal/bildungsroman. Monkey Beach is set on the northwestern BC coast, in the dripping forest, at the edge of a wild Pacific. There is no space between landscape and character here, and that’s just the way I like it.
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The Sudden Weight of Snow
Excerpt

The story goes something like this: girl meets boy. Something sears inside her. Something empties. The ground freezes. A building catches fire. Things come tumbling down. This story begins before you arrive, and it will end after you are gone. Perhaps it begins even before I start to tell it, when we leave my father – a move that can only be followed by more leave-taking, more absence. Things fall away, leave. I try to use words to bring them back.

***

I am seventeen, and until this year I have lived in the centre of a triangle formed by the almighty church, my mother’s regret, and the vague idea of what my father may have been like. There she is, my mother, always in the middle of things. She constantly interrupts this story, imposes her own. There are no fathers in this story, although I will write them in. I may try to fill my own father’s absence with other men as I have been assured I will always be compelled to do.

I still catch myself praying, although I try not to. This is what I once prayed for: a way out, hips, breasts, hair so short I could feel air moving on my scalp, love, sex that would split me open gently and then let me go, a large hand cupping the back of my head. I got almost all of those things.

My name is Sylvia Harper Kostak. I prefer to go by Harper. That was my father’s last name, probably still is. Once I was Sylvia Rose Harper. Then we left and my mother took back her name, clipped it to the end of mine. Something had to go and both of us agreed it should be the Rose. I have never liked the name Sylvia either – no one should have a name with two letters so close to the end of the alphabet in it like that. So, I go by Harper.

***

What else do you need to know? I am probably an unreliable witness. This all starts shortly before the first snowfall.

*********

I marked my own leave-taking with footsteps, counted them from locker to door. Thirty­six. If anyone wanted to stop me, they could call, “Sylvia Kostak, where do you think you’re going? Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” But they never did, not at Sawmill Creek Secondary School.

Sawmill Creek is a small town in British Columbia in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a clearing where several small valleys meet. It is five elementary schools, one high school, one mall, a 7-Eleven, a mill that goes through cycles of lay-offs like seasons and is always threatening closure, and too many churches. A place that hollowed out the pit of my stomach like hunger. People in Sawmill, as we called our town, had distinct values, a moral code that informed the whole community. Some of the things that people objected to were child abuse, homosexuality, vandalism, laziness, single moms, welfare moms, public nudity, lying, cheating, stealing, the decline of family values, zealous feminists, and most prominently, anyone who protested a man’s God-given right to make a living and support his family. The last mentioned were mainly the environmentalists from the city who knew nothing about the land or how to live off it honestly.

Even in a community as strong as Sawmill Creek, not everyone followed the code. There were old draft dodgers living in the hills with ham radios and Marxist manifestos, though the war they were running from had ended thirteen years before. There were those who stitched marijuana crops into the fabric of the forest and clerks at the health food store who claimed we could cure every ailment with the right herbs and tinctures. Somehow, we even had teachers infiltrate our secondary school who taught us about passive aggression, relaxation techniques, and conservationist forestry practices. These teachers were from other, bigger places – Vancouver, Calgary – and came to Sawmill Creek as student teachers, were lured to stay by the fruit-filled valley, the ski hill half an hour from town. We knew better than to tell our parents about what they taught us. We hung on to these glimpses of a larger world. Dreamed of ways to get there. People told us we’d want to return – This is such a good place to raise a family – but we’d been raised here and knew it wasn’t true.

I was not beautiful, not yet. My hair, dark and long, was not the blue-black of Archie’s Veronica but the dull brown of dug earth. Hazel eyes and olive skin, I liked to believe, were the dark Ukrainian in me. Physical reminders of the part of my mother’s family that had travelled across the Black Sea from Persia to Ukraine in boats carved out of single cedar trees, large enough to accommodate entire families. This imagined history was as exotic as I could pretend to be.

From the fifth grade until this story begins, I was a toothpick, a tomboy. Not everyone knows this, but when they first begin to rise up, breasts surface beneath the nipples, as hard as rocks trapped under that darker skin. Painful, too. One usually appears first. Just when you have reached the cusp of your fear, another appears. Before I understood what the “life skills” component of phys. ed. was in the fifth grade, I was seeing the uterus lit up on a chart. An upside-down pear, two dangling gloves. The elements the teacher told us about were eggs popping from sacs and travelling tubes, cells sloughing, blood flowing. Cramps. The important thing she ­didn’t tell us was that the firm bulbs of emergent breasts can easily be mistaken for cancer by the untrained eye and hand, under bedclothes in the dark, confused. My mother, Vera, to her credit, didn’t flinch or laugh when I told her about the cancer. She simply explained to me what was happening, then bought me a training bra as though to test the very name of the thing – a bra to train and coax the breasts along. Mine never did make it to the finish line.

My hips were two bones pushing against skin and my best friend, Krista, believed I could poke an eye out with them. I didn’t think that narrow space between bones could take sex into it. Sex was something thick and unknown, like beauty. My body ­wasn’t ready for either. Sometimes, I thought I could feel the promise of something – a pain, wound like a spring in my limbs, throbbing in my legs at night – and I would wake and pound my fists into my calves and thighs, trying to knock the ache out.

***

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
This book made me think that not only was my landscape valid but that my stories may be, too. Rosnau’s coming of age novel is relentless, hauling the reader on, making us hope there will be some redemption for characters we come to know too well. The weather, fire, and the north Okanagan landscape make for a sensory roller-coaster.
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Lightning

Lightning

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : historical
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
No one writes western history like Fred Stenson, and no cowboy or fur trader or traveler ever loved or appreciated his horse the way Stenson’s characters do. There is reverence in Stenson’s writing—for place, for people, for history and for storytelling. This is a gorgeous book.
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The Butcher of Penetang

The Butcher of Penetang

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
If you want muscular and hard-hitting in your CanLit, and I do, this is a book you want to read. Trumpener’s mini-fictions, fact-ions, fused narratives and freezing venues made me gobble this book whole and leaves me wanting more from her. At this point in the western Canadian canon I’m writing alongside friends who have me galloping to keep up, and, quite honestly, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
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