THE BACK PAGES

Women take on the wild wild West

In these fresh new novels, female characters don't have to play a brothel extra or a corpse

NOAH RICHLER July 2 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Women take on the wild wild West

In these fresh new novels, female characters don't have to play a brothel extra or a corpse

NOAH RICHLER July 2 2007

Women take on the wild wild West

books

In these fresh new novels, female characters don't have to play a brothel extra or a corpse

NOAH RICHLER

In The Last Crossing, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s gripping, masterful novel of the Cypress Hills Massacre and the pre-Canadian West, there is a woman who rides with the Englishmen Addington and Charles Gaunt in search of their wayward brother Simon. Lucy Stoveall, abandoned by her husband, is trying to find the men who raped and murdered her sister.

Vanderhaeghe’s novel is part of a long and honourable North American tradition, both in film and in the novel, of looking for ways to include women in the great mythic story of the West in a manner that does the gender justice. By and large, the taming of the West has been painted as a fundamentally male affair. Women have been made to wait their turn in the revisionist queue for fair rehabilitation after natives and alongside the blacks, who tend to be cast as the hero’s faithful servant, aide-de-camp or generally ennobling buddy; the Mexicans who are usually baddies of no further interest; and the Jews who, pace “Two-Gun” Cohen, tend to be quite invisible (though a manuscript entitled Westcliffe:A Jewish Western did recently arrive on my desk). Rarely do women get the chance to play something other than extras at the brothel, a corpse back at the Indian-raided ranch, or some flittery thing hopelessly out of place if taken beyond the home.

Women’s transformation into gun-toters doubling as a foil and as a relief to a story otherwise too full of men was exploited first of all in comedies (Elliot Silverstein’s Cat Ballou, withjane Fonda and Lee Marvin, my own particular favourite). Such women have usually undergone some kind of unjust event that turns them, out of vengeance or necessity, into wondrously capable outlaws whose

sexuality is elevated by their being the temporary equivalents of men. Or, true to the earlier mythology of the Greeks, they are Cassandra figures, unsettling and witch-like, heralding the possibility of chaos. Another male fantasy, really—like the old belief that the presence of a woman in a mine would mean there’d be hell to pay (an idea you’ll also find in mining stories written by Alistair MacLeod and Peter Oliva).

Typically, these portraits were written by men, though in this current publishing season something extraordinary has happened on the way to the corral. Three notable upand-coming Canadian novelists have offered up their own versions of the settling of the 19thand early 20th-century West—and all of them are women. The first is Saskatchewanbornjacqueline Baker, who, in her first novel, The Horseman’s Graves, recounts the arrival of German and Russian pioneers into Saskatchewan’s Sandhills—territory with which she is very much identified after her deservedly praised collection, A Hard Witching & Other Stories. The second is Alissa York, previously of Winnipeg, where she won a couple of writers’ awards, and now moved to Toronto. Her second novel, Ejjigy, is set in Mormon, polygamous Utah, in the years following the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 The third is Gil Adamson, whose first novel, The Outlander, features a woman fleeing the brothers of the husband she has murdered, who makes her way through the Rockies and then to Frank—the Albertan town buried in 1903 in a landslide.

There’s synchronicity in this sudden rewriting of the West, in which some of the old customs persist, although the phenomenon has more to do with women having a go than the

substance of the old mythologies being changed at all. There are certain similarities in the novels, though most of these are attributable to the accuracy of the history each is reviving. As the faith of the Old World helped make order possible in the New, the church matters big time. In Baker’s novel, TheHorseman’s Graves, religion is downright suffocating, and along with her sense of the land, does much to make the book’s atmosphere dour and unforgiving. Leo Krauss, the husband around whom Baker’s unrelenting story plays, is nothing short of horrid. In this miserable psychological landscape, most things augur evil of some kind. An infant boy, injured in a wagon accident, is feared and becomes the totem of much that cannot be explained. So does Elisabeth, the wild red-haired thing, beautiful but unkempt, who is the daughter of Leo’s second wife, imported from Utah. Leo’s first wife dies of overwork and no doubt the very incontrovertible sense of no exit.

York’s novel, Effigy, set half a century earlier, puts the practice of the incipient Mormon church under rigorous scrutiny. Where, in Baker’s novel, it is hard to attribute anything in particular to the fact of the author being a woman (we congratulate the Brian Moores and Wayne Johnstons of this world for “writing women well,” so it is permissible to make this remark), in York’s, a bit of feminist purpose is more palpable if only because Erastus Hammer, the Mormon rancher, has four wives, affording York the opportunity to paint a marital situation four times as miserable as any unfortunate monogamist knows.

In York’s novel, as in Baker’s, an almost intolerably oppressive air reigns. There are repeated scenes of unhappy evening meals and, as with Baker’s The Horseman’s Graves, a spattering of quotes from unforgiving scriptures or ominous nursery rhymes. Hammer’s fourth wife, a strangely attractive child-bride,

brings to mind Baker’s Elisabeth, and in the two novels a native presence provides a shadowy, alternate moral universe. York favours her characters’ immersion in foreboding, distracting hobbies like taxidermy, silkworms— and, for one wife in this second awful pioneer household, sex. (The wife’s name may be “thankful” for good reason.) The story of the Meadows massacre, in which Mormons dressed up as natives and slaughtered about 100 rival pioneers, is recounted in a series of dreams.

The Book of Mormon, to my mind, is possibly the most fatuous and insulting holy testament ever written. (It warns, for instance, that believers who stray off the path will see their skin turn black and their hair curly.) Mark Twain famously compared reading it to taking chloroform, though recent events

in the news from the United States—most notably the presidential candidacy of the Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney— implore some to take the religion seriously. In this regard, York’s novel is timely, though more than an extended critique of the faith, her concern appears to be the portrayal of women in the Mormon grip. Her West, like Baker’s, appears to have been settled exclusively by men who are habitually insensitive and ungenerous. Métis and natives are the exceptions in these novels.

The man who causes the initial upset in Gil Adamson’s The Outlander is insensitive and ungenerous too, but Mary Boulton had the good sense to murder him before the novel even starts, thereby dispensing the reader from having to spend any time with the brute.

Adamson’s writing is superb. Previously a poet and short-story writer, the author took 10 years to write The Outlander, though none of it seems overworked. The plot is racy, sus-

penseful and full, though it is the fun that Adamson appears to be having that comes as such a relief and is most infectious. In this, the truly remarkable novel of the three, Mary, the heroine—referred to simply as “the widow” for most of the book—is presented on the run, in cumbersome 19th-century women’s dress, on the very first page and the action does not let up from there. The widow is fleeing her two brothers-in-law, a pair of ginger-haired twins who, though more menacing, are also to this page-turner as Thompson and Thompson are to Hergé’s Tintin books. She is wanting to save herself, having lost her newborn child to the same sort of settler conditions that made the lives of most pioneer women in the New World so punishing, and the portrayals of York’s and Baker’s novels so grave and claustrophobic. Adamson’s antidote is that she enjoys her surroundings so—animals, nature, people too. On the lam, the widow meets, in turn, a sympathetic rich dowager, another “outlander”—a renegade from the new towns and their many rules—an Indian who scoffs at the condition of the bedraggled and hungry white woman he finds in the woods and, in Frank, the Rockies town of the novel’s denouement, a dwarf, an Italian bootlegger, and a reverend. Here’s the church again, except this particular father is a kind and carefree man with the odd entertaining habit of delivering sermons to the town’s miners with his fists.

Adamson understands the problem that Vanderhaeghe hinted at in The Last Crossing when he discreetly suggested the Boy’s Own

nature of his remittance men’s escapades in the West. In this writer’s invitation lies adventure but also—the West having been almost overwritten—a certain danger of parody. So, in The Outlander, some scenes have the ring and the familiarity of the cinema about them— a teetering suspension bridge the widow must cross, a gunfight with bullets pinging off the rock. But these scenes are painted with an excitement and an affection for the genre that works on the reader in turn.

Adamson’s The Outlander is, to a degree, a “literary” western. Its language is fine, poetic, a real treat at times. And yet, on the other hand, there is the deft touch of an author who knows she is teasing a genre. The brothers-inlaw cause a stir at each place they enter, and do the same with the reader, equally unsure whether to laugh or be scared by them. Adamson plays off this tension brilliantly. By the time the reader feels the author might be sending anything up, the engagement in the story is so great that we accompany her willingly.

The Outlander is one of the two best books that I have read in this, the new Giller year. (The other is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero.) Already Adamson has a pedigree that even the most begrudging critic of CanLit would have a hard time complaining about: discovered by the publishing house Porcupine’s Quill, bright, joyful with language, conscious of Canada’s own history, and of women’s, yet sufficiently secure about it all that she can add to the canon of the West with a mischievous smile and even write great sex, too.

If Vanderhaeghe’s Charles Gaunt had met this particular woman, he’d never have sailed back to England. Over to you, Guy. M

FOR ONE WIFE IN THIS AWFUL HOUSEHOLD THE DISTRACTING HOBBY IS SEX. HER NAME MAY BE ‘THANKFUL’ FOR GOOD REASON.