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Wide Open Spaces: Favourite Prairie Fiction

By Dee @ EditorialEyes
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The Canadian prairie exists in many different forms within literature. A sky that is wide open with possibility or bleakly oppressive; a landscape that is constantly or never changing; a land that belongs to different peoples in different ways. Canadian writers have examined the prairie in ways and styles, in different eras, and for different reasons. These are some of the best.
Cool Water

Cool Water

edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook Paperback
tagged : literary
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Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955–2010

Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955–2010

by Rudy Wiebe
introduction by Thomas Wharton
edition:Paperback

For more than fifty years, Canadian literary legend Rudy Wiebe has been defining and refining prairie literature through his oeuvre of world-renowned novels, histories, essays, and short stories. He has introduced generations of readers far and wide to western Canadian Mennonite, aboriginal, and settler culture. Some say he wrote the book on historical prairie fiction. In fact, he's written quite a few. The University of Alberta Press is proud to publish the fifty short stories that Wiebe comple …

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Under This Unbroken Sky

Under This Unbroken Sky

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

In the spring of 1938, Teodor Mykolayenko returns to his family after nearly two years in prison for the crime of trying to feed them. Given shelter by his sister Anna, his wife, Maria, and their five children barely survived on the harsh and brutal Canadian prairie landscape. Channelling a determination gained from escaping starvation and Stalin's crimes in the Ukraine, Teodor is committed to making a home. With unbending resolve, he takes to the land and as the crops grow, his family heals and …

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Napi's Dance

Napi's Dance

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

In the mid-1800s, southern Alberta was dominated by the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Snake Woman, from the Blackfoot Blood tribe, was born into a life of respect and cooperation with the rhythm of the natural world, a rhythm that seems to be irreparably disrupted by the advance of European traders and settlers. Eleanor, newly transplanted to this promised land with her homesteading parents, was raised on the stories of her uncle, who told of a sky that goes forever and a wind that can b …

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Medicine River

Medicine River

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary

When Will returns to Medicine River, he thinks he is simply attending his mother's funeral. He doesn't count on Harlen Bigbear and his unique brand of community planning. Harlen tries to sell Will on the idea of returning to Medicine River to open shop as the town's only Native photographer. Somehow, that's exactly what happens.

Through Will's gentle and humorous narrative, we come to know Medicine River, a small Albertan town bordering a Blackfoot reserve. And we meet its people: the basketball …

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A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered …

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Excerpt

One

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.

I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.

I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.

It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.

Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.

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Alone in the Classroom

Alone in the Classroom

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover Paperback

Elizabeth Hay's celebrated, #1 national bestseller

Hay's runaway bestseller novel crosses generations and cuts to the bone of universal truth about love and our relationship with the past. In 1930, a school principal in Saskatchewan is suspected of abusing a student. Seven years later, on the other side of the country, a girl picking wild cherries meets a violent end. These are only two of the mysteries in the life of the narrator's charismatic aunt, Connie Flood.

As the narrator Anne pieces toge …

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Excerpt

Other children were out picking that morning, but she passed them by in her light- blue dress and sandals. “Ethel,” they called, and she gave a quick smile and went on up the road towards the woods and fields at the top of the hill. She had an empty kettle in each hand and was alone, despite having three sisters.
 
They were a family of bright solitaries, studious, quiet. Unlike anyone else in that town in the Ottawa Valley, she had been conceived in India, born in India, and raised there until the age of three. Her earliest memory was having warm water ladled over her hot head from an earthenware jar. For five years her father served in the British Army, then he left that parched and dusty land for the woods and rivers of Canada. In their apartment on the third floor of the Stewart Block adjoining the Rover Garage, there were a few keepsakes from that time, small ornaments, lacquered boxes, a monkey carved in ebony. Had they lived in a house with a veranda and a grassy yard, she might not have been so inclined to stay away for hours at a time. Her mother, waiting impatiently for the plums to ripen, was no great admirer of chokecherries. Nevertheless, she simmered a second batch in a big preserving kettle and strained it through cheesecloth, then added four cups of sugar for every two cups of cherry juice and let the liquid boil until the flow of juice off a spoon turned to slower drips that came together in a sheet and broke off, at which point she removed the pot from the fire.
 
Ruby- sweet jelly was the ultimate goal, manufactured in summer kitchens for winter mornings. Pickers were out every day that summer, mainly children, the fruit uncommonly plentiful in a year that also saw a heavy growth of plums in gardens and fields. Blueberries had given promise, too, but in the hot, dry weather of late July the blue gold suffered a setback, and some were going as far away for them as the mountains of Pakenham.
 
Chokecherries merit the name, puckering one up even more than green apples. Held aloft on low and spindly trees, the size of peas, almost black when ripe and almost edible when black. Shiny black. Prune- black. Prunus virginiana. Not a name children knew, but they knew the word astringent.
 
Roads were narrower in 1937, more shaded. Cars less common and slower. Summer feet were bare and tough, or shod in old leather. Faces were careless of the sun. Noses burned, and children aided the peeling by picking the skin loose and giving it a fascinated tug. As many peelings per summer as there were pips in a winter grapefruit.
 
In a dress you were one flitting colour among many in a landscape that mobilized its colours into a procession of ripening – from wild strawberries in June more potent in flavour, more fragrant than twenty garden berries put together and reason for kneeling on the grassy verge, your face inches above your prey, your fingers gently grappling to dislodge the firm, pale, tiny necks from their leafy hulls – to raspberries in July that raked your hands and arms as you grabbed a thorny cane and swung it back like a throat about to be slit, the soft red fruit like gobbets of blood – to blueberries in August abloom with ghostly light that erased itself in your fingers. The whole landscape was a painting come to life, and not a Canadian painting (no if figures allowed), but a European painting, peopled and unpeopled, storied, brazen.
 
A deer came out of the bush. Hardly a sound. It was there, a tawny pose and wet eyes. They absorbed each other’s attention. The deer lowered its head and nibbled, Ethel moved closer. Around them was birdsong, breezes. One small branch of a leaning maple showed the first touch of red. Early August. The jewelweed was in blossom, tomatoes were ripening, the morning became increasingly hot. Summer held. But school was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.
 
The search for the lost girl started at suppertime and spread rapidly. First, family and neighbours, then the police and Boy Scouts combed the Opeongo Road where she had been seen walking that morning. They moved out through the fields and along the creek, the Scouts blowing horns to communicate their whereabouts far and wide. Bugling criss- crossed the evening and gave the impression of a summer fox hunt. The sun began to go down.
 
Crows, not quiet before, were quiet now. A breeze picked up and stirred the leaves. Shadows deepened, but fields and woods were still clear enough to an accustomed eye. And a shout went up. A young man had stumbled over a body.
 
Word circulated through town, and an hour before midnight a ghost appeared. It lingered in front of the Argyle Hotel on Argyle Street, then continued on past Russell’s drugstore and Barker’s shoe store and over to the baseball diamond and the railway tracks in a slow, footless sort of swoop, a strange white moth involved in dusky explorations. A travelling player was drumming up an audience for the midnight “Ghost Show” at the O’Brien Theatre. He drew an overflow crowd. Many had to stand in the back, others were turned away. It was the summer equivalent of Santa: children were up way beyond their bedtimes and even more suggestible than usual.
 
By then everyone knew that thirteen- year- old Ethel Weir had been found at sunset in the bush on Ivey’s Hill. Her battered head lay in a pool of blood. Four feet away were two kettles, one of them partly filled with chokecherries, the other empty.
 
This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear – a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all. Two days after the murder, a name floated up on the front page of the Mercury. John Coyle, not an official member of the search party, “almost stumbled” over the corpse in a bush next to a grain field. Very quickly, suspicion veered from marauding cattle and prowling degenerates to the lone young man who had nearly tripped over the body. The hot breath of the newspaper. “Police are working on the theory that some local person committed the deed. Some questioning has occurred. It is felt that at any hour the mystery may be solved.”
 
The old see- saw from horrified belief to dizzy disbelief to entrenched belief. The town was busy weaving a story, meting out blame, finding symmetry and plot and motive. Johnny Coyle’s fascination with his crime, went common opinion, reflected the old desire to return to the scene – as I am doing right now in returning to this time and place, in revisiting my mother’s childhood in the valley. Stories from her past draw me on. The shadows and underbrush, the evening light and imminent sorrow, until I stumble over what I’ve been looking for without quite knowing what it was, and look up. How dimly quiet the library is, how industrious the other researchers as they, too, ruin their eyes in moonlit woods of microfilm. Let’s not kid ourselves anymore about new technology.
 
In Ethel’s clenched hand were some fibres of green and yellow, light blue and rose, also dark blue, evidently wool, and some “pointed” hairs of a golden hue. My mother knew Ethel’s sister, who was too shy to be a close friend. “I was shy,” my mother said, “and she was shyer.”
 
Towards suppertime I leave the library and step outside into a haze of twenty- first- century sunshine and wind. Wellington Street in Ottawa. Behind me the Ottawa River flows east, and upriver, sixty miles from here and a bit inland, is the town I have been reading about, my mother’s hometown. I bicycle south, heading home through a flood of April light, and nothing around me is as clear as the colours and threads in Ethel’s hand, those makings for a tiny nest. Birds everywhere, but no leaves, not yet, though the red maple at the foot of my garden earns its name by staining the air dark crimson with minute, discreet blossom. In the morning, taking my pillow with me, I lie at the foot of the bed in order to see the colour through the upstairs window.
 
We have the most beautiful tree in the world. It turns my head every spring and again every fall when I step into this second- floor study and receive a bouquet the size of my window. Our house and garden used to belong to a botanist who was fascinated with orphan plants, waifs, like the Kaladar cactus first discovered a two- hour drive west of here in 1934, then lost from view and subsequently rediscovered in 1947, an isolated and vulnerable plant six hundred miles east of its Wisconsin home. The botanist used to sit on the front porch in a white chair and when he went inside he left a sign on the chair saying Open for business. You could bring him any flower or leaf and he would identify it. My study used to be full of plants that he watered in the nude. I am sorry not to have known him, though very probably he was best in small doses, because there are so many things I would like to identify and because the story I’m telling now is another story of discovery and rediscovery, not botanical but personal. Perhaps every family tale falls into this category: a child discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance.
 
What happened that August Tuesday in 1937 lived on in my mother’s mind, not that she ever mentioned it to me until long after I left home. Nor did she temper any of my own youthful wanderings with a warning. I went out into the world as free of apprehension as was Ethel Weir on the day she went to pick chokecherries, wearing a blue dress of synthetic silk and a green slip underneath it.
 
Birds compete for the berries. Robins peck the guts out of strawberries. Finches, robins, blue jays, kingbirds, cedar waxwings – all of them go after the chokecherries that favour fencerows and roadsides and the edges of open woods. Crows fancy the metallic glints of the kettles and pails children carry as they wander into the open centre of wild- plum thickets, or into the grassy meadow next to a little- used airfield, or into an abandoned orchard on a southern slope, or along the railway’s right- of- way, or down a path skirting a grain field towards the straggly, ragged chokecherry bushes above the creek, or into the woods for shade and rest.
 
Murdered in the morning, it was thought, for by the time they found her body, it was stiff. Dead eight to ten hours, the coroner said. They carried the body on a blanket out of the woods and transported it by car to the funeral parlour on Argyle Street. Three days later, several hundred people, mostly women and children (though not my mother and grandmother, they were at the lake), gathered at the Presbyterian Church for the morning funeral. A closed white casket. And afterwards, interment in the Angusville Cemetery.
 
Another funeral took place in the afternoon, another instance of sudden and perplexing death. A doctor had died on the operating table. On Tuesday evening (as the search was on for Ethel), Dr. Thomas entered the hospital and on Wednesday morning his heart gave out, an apparently rugged man with a heavy practice and a long history in the town.
 
Some who went to the first funeral attended the second, among them a reporter for the Ottawa Journal and the source of much of what I know. Connie Flood stayed on in the cemetery, notepad against her propped- up knees and her back against a tree, a young woman who made a desk for herself wherever she went. The cemetery was on a grassy hill half a mile from town. A white fence separated it from the road, and the large swing gates were open. The second funeral came through the gates, a sombre parade led by a firing party of the Lanark and Argyle Scottish Regiment with arms reversed. From a curious distance, Connie noted the contrast with the earlier scene of mothers holding their children by the hand, the bereaved family bent- shouldered and willowy, the sisters bare armed in summer dresses and flat, flowered straw hats, purchased for Easter probably, the mother in black, the father in black, the ceremony at the graveside drenched in tears and formality beside the point. Afterwards, the mourners left the baked cemetery for more of the noonday sun, some walking, some in cars.
 
In the second case, all the motions mattered. The regiment fired three volleys over the grave, then the pipe major played the customary lament and a comrade sounded the last post. A prominent citizen was being buried and prominent citizens were in attendance. Connie lingered on the edges. The dead man apparently had no children, no wife. It was hard to say. Two women seemed front and centre, aunts perhaps or sisters. And men in dark suits and hats, older men, established men, and suddenly the air went funny and the ground shifted. She drew near to make sure.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Jake and the Kid

Jake and the Kid

edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook (cassette)
tagged : literary

When Ma, the Kid, her twelve year old son, and Jake, the hired man, first appeared on the pages of Maclean's and shortly after on CBC Radio, the lively boy and his cranky hero found their way into the hearts of thousands of readers.

Now, in this new edition of Jake and the Kid, Crocus, a prairie town in the forties and fifties, comes alive once again. In these lovingly rendered stories, we encounter the glorious minutia of small town life on the Canadian prairie. Jake and the Kid are surrounded b …

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