Rediscovering the Prairies
by Marls Abley
Post Your Opinion
by Boughs Glover
Between AG33S of six and 20 Mark Abley lived in Lethbridge and Saskatoon ("Home was a yellow bungalow with chokecherry trees and rhubarb bushes... a hundred yards from the South Saskatchewan"), before escaping east to seek his fortune (Oxford University and a career as a journalist in Toronto and Montreal). In Beyond Forget he returns to western Canada 10 years later to explore the land of his youth.
Travelling from Saskatoon is two sprawling loops, he takes his reader from the badlands of the Big Muddy to the tundra of Hudson Bay, from as abandoned church in southeastern Saskatchewan to the West Edmonton Mall, from the Inco mine at Thompson to Indian petroglyphs and cattle ranches in southern Alberta. Bough he fairy races along, and his descriptions are mostly impressionistic, he Hunts occasional unforgettable scenes: a farm tour given him by some discreetly ribald Hutterite teenagers, an impromptu rodeo after a cattle roundup. (He is also good on bird identification and lore.) For companionship he reads Travels in Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, by James Carnegie, the Fail of Southesk, who wandered through in 1859, slaughtering game and reading Shakespeare.
Beyond Forget could have bees a timely and illuminating travel book, but isn't. Despite occasional charms, it seems this and hasty. Either Abley should have taken more tune (the nation of "rediscovering" the West in a few weeks, eves with a fast car, seems the height of Eastern pertinacity), or he should hate limited his itinerary.
In order to offset incongruities of scale, he takes shortcuts. He clearly has an idea of the West he wants to discover before he starts out. It consists of small (decaying) roams, seedy bars, Mennonite farmers, hard-pressed ranchers and wheatgrowers, unemployed and degraded Indians. He doesn't like big cities, suburbs, the oil industry, malls, Muzak, or the practices of animal husbandry (with amusing regularity he blanches in print at the way ordinary farmers handle livestock).
Although most of the West's population lives is arias, Abley disposes of Winnipeg, Regina.Calgary (Albertans will note that their two largest urban centres are "optional, not essential"), and Saskatoon each in a brief chapter, while bypassing Edmonton altogether, except for a quick trip to the West Edmonton Mall. (One assumes he thinks the Mall more representative of prairie culture than, say, Ruby Wiebe or the University of Alberta.) Instead of seeking out artists and writers --- living prairie voices he spends a chapter trying to resuscitate the reputation of a dead poet who wrote in Icelandic (not to mention digressions on the English poet T.E. Hulme and the mysterious B. Traven).
Abley throughout confuses pop culture (malls, suburbs, Muzak) with culture and folk history with history. Consequently he criticizes westerners for the things they have in common with people from Ontario or Quebec and tries to reconstruct a unique identity out of a few eccentrics, falters, and folktales.
Why, for example, does he waste pages on Grey Owl, who spent only the last six years of his life in Manitoba and Saskatchewan lecturing in England and the U.S. much of the tune), and make just passing references to Louis Kiel? Why does he mention Sitting Bull and not Fig Bear and Poundmaker? How can he in good conscience explain away the Metis as, parenthetically, "halfbreeds" and then devote the whole last chapter of his book to a small group of former American slaves who founded a town in central Saskatchewan? Why does he choose a British earl as his literary shadow, ignoring the charming and indigenous 19th century travel books of Grant and Kane?
Beyond Forget reads like a book by a man forting himself to drum up interest is a place he doesn't really care for. His discourse betrays his prejudice: he calls Noah America an "Anglo-Saxon continent" (this from a man who lives in Montreal); the Indians he meets are often not identified by last names (as are almost all the whites), just "Dave" or "Betsy"; be is "seduced" by Gimli, Man., a Scandinavian "paradise." When lie can't think of anything to say about a scene he lapses into negative description, telling what it doesn't look like (once even double negatives: "Scow is not uncommon is May and September, not unknown in June and August").
Stretching for effect, he uses words incorrectly ("immodest" for "modest," "'prudent" for "prudish," a car "made a pass") or offensively (an old truck is "a menopausal half-ton"), becomes redundant ("the usual clichT"), flirts with tautology ("The first function of history is remembering ..."), makes facile analogies (Indian reserves are like South African black townships; Into in Thompson is like the United Fruit Company in Honduras), or falls into unintentional humour (fleeing the Sodom of the West Edmonton Mall, "I was is a kind of grief: that the prairies should have come to this! .. . My eyes had grown debauched...").
Abley sounds as though he still hasn't, is his wards, learned to "read" his own country.