A strange place it was, that place where the world began. A place of incredible happenings, splendors and revelations, despairs like multitudinous pits of isolated hells. A place of shadow-spookiness, inhabited by the unknowable dead. A place of jubilation and of mourning, horrible and beautiful.
It was, in fact, a small prairie town.
Because that settlement and that land were my first and for many years my only real knowledge of this planet, in some profound way they remain my world, my way of viewing. My eyes were formed there. Towns like ours, set in a sea of land, have been described thousands of times as dull, bleak, flat, uninteresting. I have had it said to me that the railway trip across Canada is spectacular, except for the prairies, when it would be desirable to go to sleep for several days, until the ordeal is over. I am always unable to argue this point effectively. All I can say is — well, you really have to live there to know that country. The town of my childhood could be called bizarre, agonizingly repressive or cruel at times, and the land in which it grew could be called harsh in the violence of its seasonal changes. But never merely flat or uninteresting. Never dull.
In winter, we used to hitch rides on the back of the milk sleigh, our moccasins squeaking and slithering on the hard rutted snow of the roads, our hands in ice-bubbled mitts hanging onto the box edge of the sleigh for dear life, while Bert grinned at us through his great frosted moustache and shouted the horse into speed, daring us to stay put. Those mornings, rising, there would be the perpetual fascination of the frost feathers on windows, the ferns and flowers and eerie faces traced there during the night by unseen artists of the wind. Evenings, coming back from skating, the sky would be black but not dark, for you could see a cold glitter of stars from one side of the earth’s rim to the other. And then the sometime astonishment when you saw the Northern Lights flaring in swift ice flames across the sky, like the scrawled signature of God. After a blizzard, when the snowploughs hadn’t yet got through, school would be closed for the day, the assumption being that the town’s young could not possibly flounder through five feet of snow in the pursuit of education. We would then gaily don snowshoes and flounder for miles out into the white dazzling deserts, in pursuit of a different kind of knowing. If you came back too close to night, through the woods at the foot of the town hill, the thin black branches of poplar and chokecherry now meringued with frost, sometimes you heard coyotes. Or maybe the banshee wolf-voices were really only inside your head.
Summers were scorching, and when no rain came and the wheat became bleached and dried before it headed, the faces of farmers and townspeople would not smile much, and you took for granted, because it never seemed to have been any different, the frequent knocking at the back door and the young men standing there, mumbling or thrusting defiantly their requests for a drink of water and a sandwich if you could spare it. They were riding the freights, and you never knew where they had come from, or where they might end up, if anywhere. The Drought and Depression were like evil deities which had been there always. You understood and did not understand.
Yet the outside world had its continuing marvels. The poplar bluffs and the small river were filled and surrounded with a zillion different grasses, stones and weed flowers. The meadowlarks sang undaunted from the twanging telephone wires along the gravel highway. Once we found an old flat-bottomed scow, and launched her, poling along the shallow brown waters, mending her with wodges of hastily chewed Spearmint, grounding her among the tangles of yellow marsh marigolds that grew succulently along the banks of the shrunken river, while the sun made our skins smell dusty-warm.
My best friend lived in an apartment above some stores on Main Street, an elegant apartment with royal-blue velvet curtains. The back roof, scarcely sloping at all, was corrugated tin, of a furnace-like warmth on a July afternoon, and we would sit there drinking lemonade and looking across the back lane at the Fire Hall. Sometimes our vigil would be rewarded. Oh joy! Somebody’s house burning down! We had an almost-perfect callousness in some ways. Then the wooden tower’s bronze bell would clonk and toll like a thousand speeded funerals in a time of plague, and in a few minutes the team of giant black horses would cannon forth, pulling the fire wagon like some scarlet chariot of the Goths, while the firemen clung with one hand, adjusting their helmets as they went.
The oddities of the place were endless. An elderly lady used to serve, as her afternoon tea offering to other ladies, soda biscuits spread with peanut butter and topped with a whole marshmallow. Some considered this slightly eccentric, when compared with chopped egg sandwiches, and admittedly talked about her behind her back, but no one ever refused these delicacies or indicated to her that they thought she had slipped a cog. Another lady dyed her hair a bright and cheery orange, by strangers often mistaken at 20 paces for a feather hat. My own beloved stepmother wore a silver fox neckpiece, a whole pelt, with the embalmed(?) head still on. My Ontario Irish grandfather said sparrow grass, a more interesting term than asparagus. The town dump was known as the nuisance grounds, a phrase fraught with weird connotations, as though the effluvia of our lives was beneath contempt but at the same time was subtly threatening to the determined and sometimes hysterical propriety of our ways.
Some oddities were, as idiom had it, “funny ha ha”; others were “funny peculiar.” Some were not so very funny at all. An old man lived, deranged, in a shack in the valley. Perhaps he wasn’t even all that old, but to us he seemed a wild Methuselah figure, shambling among the underbrush and the tall couch grass, muttering indecipherable curses or blessings, a prophet who had forgotten his prophecies. Everyone in town knew him, but no one knew him. He lived among us as though only occasionally and momentarily visible. The kids called him Andy Gump, and feared him. Some sought to prove their bravery by tormenting him. They were the medieval bear baiters, and he the lumbering bewildered bear, half blind, only rarely turning to snarl. Everything is to be found in a town like mine. Belsen, writ small but with the same ink.
All of us cast stones in one shape or another. In grade school, among the vulnerable and violet girls we were, the feared and despised were those few older girls from what was charmingly called “the wrong side of the tracks.” Tough in talk and tougher in muscle, they were said to be whores already. And probably were, that being about the only profession readily accessible to them, there.
The dead lived in that place, too. Not only the grandparents who had, in local parlance, “passed on” and who gloomed, bearded or bonneted, from the sepia photographs in old albums, but also the uncles, forever 18 or 19, whose names were carved on the granite family stones in the cemetery, but whose bones lay in France. My own young mother lay in that graveyard, beside other dead of our kin, and when I was 10, my father too, only 40, left the living town for the dead dwelling on the hill.
When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to get out of that town, away from the prairies. I did not know then that I would carry the land and town all my life within my skull, that they would form the mainspring and source of the writing 1 was to do, wherever and however far away I might live.
This was my territory in the time of my youth, and in a sense my life since then has been an attempt to look at it, to come to terms with it. Stultifying to the mind it could certainly be, and sometimes was, but not to the imagination. It was many things, but it was never dull.
The same, I now see, could be said for Canada in general. Why on earth did generations of Canadians pretend to believe this country dull? We knew perfectly well it wasn’t. Yet for so long we did not proclaim what we knew. If our upsurge of so-called nationalism seems odd or irrelevant now to outsiders, and even to some of our own people (what's all the fuss about?), they might try to understand that for many years we valued ourselves insufficiently, living as we did under the huge shadows of those two dominating figures, Uncle Sam and Britannia. We have only just begun to value ourselves, our land, our abilities. We have only just begun to recognize our legends and to give shape to our myths.
There are, God knows, enough aspects to deplore about this country. When I see the killing of our lakes and rivers with industrial wastes, I feel rage and despair. When I see our industries and natural resources increasingly taken over by America, I feel an overwhelming discouragement, especially as I cannot simply say, “damn Yankees.” It should never be forgotten that it is we ourselves who have sold such a large amount of our birthright for a mess of plastic Progress. When I saw the War Measures Act being invoked, I lost forever the vestigial remains of the naive wish-belief that repression could not happen here, or would not. And yet of course I had known all along in the deepest and often hidden cave of the heart that anything can happen anywhere, for the seeds both of man’s freedom and of his captivity are found everywhere, even in the microcosm of a prairie town. But in raging against our injustices, our stupidities, I do so as family, as I did, and still do in writing, about those aspects of my town which I hated and which are always in some ways aspects of myself.
The land still draws me more than other lands. I have lived in Africa and in England, but splendid as both can be they do not have the power to move me in the same way as, for example, that part of southern Ontario where I spent four months last summer in a cedar cabin beside a river. “Scratch a Canadian and you find a phony pioneer,” I
used to say to myself, in warning. But all the same it is true, I think, that we are not yet totally alienated from physical earth, and let us only pray we do not become so. I once thought that my lifelong fear and mistrust of cities made me a kind of old-fashioned freak; now I see it differently.
The cabin has a long window across its front western wall, and sitting at the oak table there, in the mornings, I used to look out at the river and at the tall trees beyond, green-gold in the early light. The river was bronze; the sun caught it strangely, reflecting upon its surface the near-shore sand ripples underneath, making it seem momentarily as though a whole flotilla of gold flickerings sailed there. Suddenly, the silver crescenting of a fish, gone before the eye could clearly give image to it. The old man next door said these leaping fish were carp. Himself, he preferred muskie, for he was a real fisherman and the muskie gave him a fight. The wind most often blew from the south, and the river flowed toward the south, so when the Water was wind-riffled and the current was strong, the river seemed to be flowing both ways. I liked this, and interpreted it as an omen, a natural symbol.
A few years ago, when I was back in Winnipeg, I gave a talk at my old college. It was open to the public, and afterward a very old man came up to me and asked me if my maiden name had been Wemyss. I said yes, thinking that he might have known my father or my grandfather. But no. “When I was a young lad,” he said, “I once worked for your great-grandfather, Robert Wemyss, when he had the sheep ranch.” 1 think that was the moment when I realized something of great importance to me. My long-ago families came from Scotland and Ireland, but in a sense that no longer mattered so much. My true roots were here and would remain so, whatever happened.
I am not very patriotic, in the usual meaning of that word. I cannot say, “My country right or wrong” in any political, social or literary context. But one thing is inalterable, for better or worse.
This is not only where my world began. It is also the land of my ancestors. ■
Margaret Laurence was born and grew up in Manitoba. She has written five novels, one of which A Jest Of God won the Governor General’s Award in 1966 and was later made into the movie Rachel, Rachel, and many short stories. She is at work on another novel.
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