IT'S THE SWELTERING summer of the year 2000 - the millennium - in the small western town of Ordeal; the town is in decline and the prairie all around is well on its way to becoming an and ecological wasteland. The small farmers can no longer make anything grow, and those at the centre of power (the governments, the banks) are hostile or indifferent. In a last, desperate effort, the people of Ordeal band together to try and save their town and their rural way of life.
This is the context of Sharon Butala's new novel, The Fourth Archangel - grimly realistic, even depressing, as was the Great Depression it so frequently evokes. For the first third of the book readers might be forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled onto a lost novel by Sinclair Ross, or Robert Stead, or F. P. Grove, so deeply has Butala been affected by her regional literary predecessors. But it soon becomes evident that something most un-Ross-like, unStead-like, un-Grove-like is going on in Ordeal: an elderly schoolteacher, for example, experiences apocalyptic visions; a promiscuous young woman develops the stigmata; several apparitions from the Old West stalk the townspeople through Ordeal's dusty streets; and a strange clergyman named Uriel (the archangel of the title) assembles his flock for the Final Days. Past and present become interchangeable, insanity mingles with sanity, and the surreal overwhelms the real.
All in all, it's a strange mixture of a book. Along the way, especially in those early pages, readers may suspect they're being subjected to a thinly disguised lesson on the socio-economic status of the Prairie farmer. Here's an example of some of the dialogue:
"At eight per cent," he was saying, "the annual interest payment - just the interest on the principal - is about twenty-eight thousand. So..." Jessie drew in her breath sharply, forgetting appearance.
"But you just said our projected annual income is less than that!"
"Drought," he said. "I gambled. I wasn't the only one, and if we'd had good weather, a few good crops, there'd have been no problem. We'd already had seven years of drought. I thought, everybody thought, it had to break."
Sometimes, too, and not just in the early part of the novel, the characters degenerate into stereotypes (the Young Farmer, the Frustrated Artist, the Disillusioned Academic, the Pioneer, the Spinster Schoolmarm, the City Folks, etc.). And though the scenes involving the hero and the heroine, Neil and Amy are for the most part convincing and full of insights into the nature and fragility of love, even they occasionally have a jarring, Harlequin Romance-ish air about them. Did Butala deliberately introduce such unevenness as a way of suggesting the varying moods of the Prairie landscape itself - banal and monotonous as a desert, then full of splendour and magic? I like to think so. Certainly, the Prairies are front and centre in a novel that is a profound elegy dealing with their destruction. Neil imagines how the Great Plains must have been in the times before the first explorers and settlers arrived:
They [the Native peoples] lived in a world where each day held eternity ... even if you were starving because the game had all gone somewhere else, and you had to pray to your gods to find it. Because you knew every stick of wood, every star, every tree, and the smallest mouse tunnelling through the prairie was god.
He dreams of a return to such a world (this novel is chock-a-block with dreams and ghosts). He tries to persuade Amy of the validity of his vision, but she in the end treats it as simply an escapist fantasy:
Neil is wrong, she thought. It is not the aboriginals' dreamtime to which we must return. That dream, too, is gone. It is the idea of progress that has killed us. We were whole the way we were, but we dreamt of progress and our dreams destroyed us. It has always been this way.
Doesn't that final, magisterial pronouncement sound absolutely Groveesque? To me, it certainly does - maybe because I once spent a year in the University of Manitoba library reading Grove's entire published works and collected papers (for my sins, Reverend Uriel might say). It's a tribute to Sharon Butala's narrative skills that, the Grove factor notwithstanding, I was still able to find considerable reading pleasure in The Fourth Archangel.