FICTION

A wise Indian’s reservations

STEPHEN SCOBIE November 1 1973
FICTION

A wise Indian’s reservations

STEPHEN SCOBIE November 1 1973

A wise Indian’s reservations

FICTION

STEPHEN SCOBIE

“We have been given Earth and Buffalo, who needs more to breathe than air?” The words are those of Big Bear, the Cree Indian chief whose tribe fought, along with Poundmaker’s, on the side of Louis Riel in the rebellion of 1885. The words are also those of Rudy Wiebe, whose novel The Temptations Of Big Bear (McClelland and Stewart, $8.95) is a major event of Canadian publishing this fall.

Wiebe’s novel is epic in scope and achievement. It tells the story of Big

3Bear: of his refusals to sign treaties and accept reservations; of his final hunts as the buffalo, and with it his people’s way of life, disappear; of the futile violence of the Frog Lake massacre, the indecisive battle of Frenchman Butte; of the grandeur of his religion, of his character, above all of his speech.

It is a remarkable achievement in that it seems to speak to us from right inside the Indian experience. Obviously, a tremendous amount of research has gone into this novel, but it is never pedantic: rather, it conveys the Indian way of life and world view in such a way that the reader accepts it as natural, and as fully understandable. Wiebe’s own deeply religious sensibility extends beyond the Christianity of his previous novels to embrace the Cree beliefs, and to present them with deep sympathy.

The novel, however, encompasses various different narrative voices — from Big Bear’s own magnificent oratory to the thoroughly jaundiced account of a private in the army sent to pursue him — and evolves into an intricate mosaic of both white and Indian societies. Wiebe describes the book as a “meditation upon the past” and in the fullest sense, this is what it is: an experience of a past age and a past culture, which goes far beyond the mere narrative (brilliant though that is) to become a profound reflection on the human estate. And it is not just the world of the Crees that is passing: the implications for our own culture are clearly present. Earth, air and buffalo: all are in danger, all disappear in the face of forces we can scarcely comprehend. Wiebe writes an elegy for the death of a culture, the Plains Indians who hunted the buffalo as the gift of Only One; but it could just as easily be our own.

The Temptations Of Big Bear is a great novel, one of the best, perhaps, ever to be written in Canada. In trying to comprehend an incident of central and continuing importance to Canadian history, it is certainly an ambitious undertaking: but it is almost totally successful in fulfilling these ambitions.

The theme of the extinction of Indian culture is also taken up in Peter Such’s Riverrun (Clarke, Irwin, $5.95), which deals with the last days of the Beothuks in Newfoundland in the early 19th century. It is quite a short novel, and consists basically of three brief but vivid sketches of the last remaining Beothuks as they are hunted down by their enemies. Next

Stephen Scobie teaches English at the University of Alberta.

to Wiebe’s novel it stands like a lyric poem beside an epic; but given this difference in scale, Riverrun is a very accomplished book. The title’s reference to James Joyce is perhaps unnecessary, introducing a dimension that doesn’t fully belong to the book; but its conclusion is even more poignant than Wiebe’s, because it is more final. Shawnadithit, the girl who is the sole survivor of her tribe, reflects: “Soon I alone will be left to carry the burden of the People’s presence in the People’s forests. What shall I say when the trees and water ask me? Where have you lost them, Shawnadithit? Where have you lost your People?”

The fate of the Indian on a reservation is one of the central subjects of The Vanishing Point (Macmillan, $9.95), the long-awaited new novel by W. O. Mitchell, author of the classic Who Has Seen The Wind? Its hero is Carlyle Sinclair, a reservation agent in southwest Alberta, and the story centres on his search for a missing Indian girl, Victoria Rider, whom he regards, in grossly sentimental terms, as the main justification of his job, even of his life. The mood switches rather uneasily between passages of Mitchell’s wild and often bawdy humor (which do not work nearly as well on the page as they do when Mitchell, a born raconteur, is telling them in person) and more serious, reflective episodes about the frustrations of reservation life and Carlyle’s increasing sense of his own futility and despair. The controlling image is that of the vanishing point, at which all things are sucked away into nothingness; but, since Mitchell is essentially a comic writer, it is also the point at which parallel lines do meet. Thus, the book works toward a resolution of reconciliation and selfknowledge rather than one of despair. If this ending is not entirely convincing, it may be partly because of

the modern reader’s resistance to the happy ending; but it is also because Mitchell has never fully convinced us of the depth of his characters.

Indians, of one sort or another, also make a brief appearance in Leo Simpson’s The Peacock Papers (Macmillan, $6.95), undoubtedly the funniest novel of the season. This is a wild, freewheeling, farcical romp, which gaily encompasses such diverse topics as a lost tribe of Canadian Indians descended from the writers of the Dead Sea scrolls, a hilarious parody of Marshall McLuhan, and the potentially disastrous effects of novels about Jewish mothers. The world also ends, quite close to the beginning of the novel, but nobody notices except one angel who is very sad because he really enjoyed the Hamilton TigerCats. The Peacock in question is Thomas Love Peacock, a minor 19thcentury novelist, who turns up in present-day Ontario and contributes one chapter to the novel — written by Simpson in a lovingly detailed recreation of Peacock’s style. Finally, it is impossible to consider worthless any novel which contains the word floccinaucinihilipilification. *

Richard Wright’s In The Middle Of A Life (Macmillan $7.95) portrays a rather dull character doing rather dull things in the middle of a rather dull life. Predictably, the result is a rather dull book, since Wright’s .style is unable to transcend the situations. Most of the incidents are fairly predictable, and the frequent flashbacks are very clumsily introduced. The book may be a sensitive and sympathetic portrait of a very ordinary man, and one would like to argue that fiction doesn’t need to be about exceptional characters all the time, but the novelist still needs more going for him than there is here.

Jack Ludwig’s A Woman Of Her Age (McClelland and Stewart, $7.95) is a sequel to the author’s very popular short story of the same name. It centres on Doba Goffman, a rich Jewish widow, an old-time radical living in Westmount — with all the contradictions that these terms imply. The novel, like Doba herself, is full of energy and life but, also like Doba, it never really gets anywhere. It is a lateral expansion of the short story, filling out detailed sketches of all the characters who are barely mentioned in the original, but providing very little in the way of action or forward movement. This curious sense of tremendous energy caught in an unproductive stasis may be just right for the central character, but at times it threatens to become too frustrating

’"The action or habit of estimating as worthless.

for the reader of Ludwig’s novel.

Marian Engel’s Monodromos (Anansi, $7.95) is a very fine, quiet, understated account of a Canadian woman spending a year on Cyprus. It is very much a mood piece, with detailed evocations of the scenery, the people, the feeling of the small town’s society, the drifting existence of the resident foreigners. Although some fairly startling things happen (several adulteries and abductions, a homosexual affair and two deaths, one of them a gruesome suicide), the mood remains calm, and these events are absorbed into the texture of the story, which moves effortlessly toward an appropriately inconclusive ending.