Lonely are the grave
Someday, maybe, we'll appreciate Rudy Wiebe
The Prohibition Manifesto was issued in a bar in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, three years ago. Rudy Wiebe, who doesn’t drink, and Robert Kroetsch, who most certainly does, were unwinding there after a day’s writing classes at the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts. Kroetsch, a writing instructor, and Wiebe, writer-in-residence that summer, hit on the notion of having a school reunion party in the fall. They decided to hold it on a piece of wilderness Wiebe owns, a 320-acre tangle of bush, swamp and rock about 50 miles southwest of Edmonton. “Of course,” said Wiebe, taking another sip of ginger ale, “I don’t allow guns or liquor on the land.’’Kroetsch, who wrote The Studhorse Man, a title Wiebe considers nicely symbolic of Kroetsch’s own lifestyle, assumed his friend was joking.
Wiebe was entirely serious. A CBC television crew, arriving at the reunion to document Western writers at play, thoughtfully brought along a few cases of beer for the party. Sorry, said Wiebe, sounding anything but, no liquor allowed here. The TV crew obediently stashed the brew back in
their van as a dumbfounded, but dry, Kroetsch watched wistfully. And Wiebe, who’d been only half-serious about the booze ban to begin with, snatched the opportunity to ban liquor forever after on his land. Wiebe believes people should fully experience the bush: the howl of coyotes, the crackling of the Northern Lights, the moaning of the wind in the poplars. People should not, in his opinion, dull nature’s impact by a haze of alcohol. His guests aren’t polled for their opinions. Wiebe has taken it upon himself to decide what’s best for them.
Rudy Wiebe writes with the same uncompromising vision. He has no patience with the quick read, no respect for the self-indulgent search for self so currently fashionable on best-seller lists. “I argue with writing friends all the time. They have such incredible talent and they write about such terrible subjects. The anti-hero, the
person looking for himself, the man agonizing over the size of his penis . . . they’re puny subjects. That’s nothing more than snooping around inside your own piddly dreams.” Wiebe believes only magnificent works of art are worth the trashing of trees and art demands great subjects written with great artistry. “Modern man has been so trivialized, he can see only his own innards. A writer has to help people get beyond their own smallness.”
Readers, so far, have proved less tractable than Wiebe’s party guests. Canadian historical novels are still something of a rarity; Wiebe’s delvings into the myths and minorities he believes fundamental to Canada seem an even more esoteric taste. The Temptations of Big Bear, about the 1800s Cree chief who tried to prevent the Frog Lake massacre, won Wiebe the 1973 Governor-General’s Award for fiction and sold a mere 5,000 copies in hardback. At least one critic predicted another GovernorGeneral’s Award for The Scorched-Wood People, Wiebe’s study of Louis Riel and the Métis released late last year. Wiebe himself didn’t expect The Scorched-Wood People, which portrays Riel as a saint and a martyr, to sell as well as Big Bear but it has passed 5,000 copies and gone into a second printing—respectable sales but hardly a runaway best seller.
“I wish people were smarter,” he sighs. “But no one is obliged to read anything you write. You simply have to have faith in what you’re doing. You have to know you’re writing well. William Faulkner never wrote a best seller in his lifetime but his novels sell by the hundreds of thousands now.” The inference is clear: people are eventually persuaded to see what’s best for them. In the meantime, faith is a non-negotiable currency. To support his wife, Tena, and their three children (ages 19, 17 and 9 ) in modest, suburban comfort in Edmonton, Wiebe has taught in the University of Alberta’s English department for the past 11 years. This month he is getting something of a reprieve, moving temporarily to the University of Calgary where he has been appointed writer-in-residence. That will mean a year of relative freedom, a rare period during which Wiebe will be able to devote full attention to a desk-full of his own writing projects. Until now, he has had no choice but to teach since salary permitted him to write what he wanted, rather than what might sell. The two seem hopelessly incompatible; none of his five novels has sold enough to meet the mortgage payments over the past 16 years.
Ironically, one of Wiebe’s students has
become a suddenly rich literary star. Last April, at the age of 23, Aritha van Herk won McClelland and Stewart’s $50,000 first-novel prize, the world’s biggest literary award after the Nobel, for her book Judith. Wiebe, who happened to be in Montreal while van Herk was climbing a ladder there to endorse her billboard cheque, compared notes with Leonard Cohen. “He’s exactly my age—43—and, like me, he’s been writing all his life. And neither of us has made $50,000 in total book royalties.” Wiebe is unperturbed. “That was the way it was meant to happen,” he says.
The fatalism is an eerie echo of his mother’s solution to everything: prayer. It works, says Wiebe. It’s had to, perhaps. Wiebe, a devout Mennonite, scandalized the Mennonite community and brought ostracism on his family with his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. The Mennonites, says Wiebe, have not been spared any of mankind’s tyrannies but they were horrified that the outside world should learn of their cruelties, hypocrisy and hates. Some of the brethren, with a notable lack of charity, loudly blamed Wiebe’s parents for his ruination, refused to speak to his father (now dead), and brought about Wiebe’s resignation as editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald in Winnipeg. The novel was damned by preachers, and never read by his parents, who could neither read nor write English.
Today, Wiebe is a member in good standing at a more tolerant Mennonite church in Edmonton. He preaches occasionally; he and his wife sing in the choir. He has weathered a storm that can scarcely be imagined in more secular circles and his trial-by-fire has given him, perhaps, the core of steel needed to do battle with an ungrateful, uncomprehending world. Wiebe, often described by critics as the most visionary of Canadian novelists, has a vision of Canada to impart to Canadians, a
vision he believes is vital to the country’s survival. That people can’t be made to see this—“We know all about Gettysburg and nothing about Batoche, which was the turning point in Canadian history”—is frustrating. But Wiebe labors on, his zealous dedication undimmed by readers who’d prefer their history, if history they must have, as costume drama.
“A nation is built by the myths it holds around itself,” Wiebe argues. “Every society, large or small, is created, destroyed, held together by myth. If Canada holds about it the myth that it is a third-rate nation, then it is third-rate. We believe we always borrow the best we have from others, that we’re incapable of building anything good ourselves. We despise our minorities, ignore them, dismiss th? . as unimportant. You can’t build a great nation on concepts like that. You can’t build a great nation on personal self-ignorance. Robert Kroetsch once said, Tn a sense we haven’t got an identity until someone tells our story. The fiction makes us real.’ Since Canada’s larger society now appears on the verge of breaking apart, we had better start to ask ourselves, ‘Where, Lord, were our fictions inadequate to sustain us?’ ”
The sustaining fictions are not, in Wiebe’s view, the ones most readily swallowed by Central Canada. “The Prairies have always been some place to come away from: W. O. Mitchell spends half his time in Toronto, Margaret Laurence hasn’t
lived on the Prairies since she was a child, Robert Kroetsch is only now returning (to the University of Manitoba). And if you write without being there, you see with the eye of a child, an adolescent. You remember but there’s no presence, no range of experience.” Thus Central Canada— “which dominates all of us’^—accepts only certain, censored versions of the Prairies. Central Canadians prefer their pioneers to be WASPs, heading west from Ontario; they require frontier-seekers to be sturdy, suffering and indomitable. Indians are limited to a “noble savage” role. “The Métis have lived here almost as long as the French have lived in Quebec. They have a history that parallels Quebec’s in their relationship with Central Canada. Yet they’ve almost disappeared from our national consciousness and white Westerners still have the relationship with Ontario that the Métis fought: we’re a colony of Central Canada. Louis Riel asked that question from the beginning: ‘How long can that last?’ Riel saw the need for a more balanced distribution of power, the impossibility of having all the decision-making centred in one part of the country. That was his vision and, right now, with the country breaking up, we need all the visions we can get.” But the bloody, black Irish of Ontario’s Biddulph Township are deemed “high art” by Central Canada; the Ukrainians of Hairy Hill, Alberta, are not. “And until a society or group is written about, it remains shapeless. An embarrassment somehow.” By this point in his argument, Wiebe has consumed a small woodpile of toothpicks; he chews them up the way smokers smoke and gumchewers chew: the tempo speeds up as the arguments pile up.
That Wiebe cares so passionately is a reflection of his own otherness. “I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve never been close to the powers of society. There have always been others and us. And I never saw my kind of world reflected in literature.” Wiebe’s world, in fact, has disappeared. The North Saskatchewan homestead where he grew up, the poplar-choked Riel country burned into his consciousness and his writing, has become a community pasture. “A couple of hundred people, two schools, a church, stores, a post office wiped off the face of the earth by bulldozers. I doubt I could even find the hill that had the log cabin where I was born. Everything has been eradicated; the lives, the memories of a lot of people are gone. That has to be symbolic of something.”
The world fails to grasp the significance. Wiebe recalls a publisher flying him, first class, to New York to tell him that if he wrote as well about Jews as he did about Mennonites, he’d be a best seller. His New York agent regularly forwards rejection, slips from American publishers who agree Wiebe writes marvelously, but his topics are too Canadian. But neither do Canadians feel a kinship. Mennonites don’t read fiction; non-Mennonites don’t understand their dialect.
Wiebe has progressed from the concern with his own Mennonite traditions in his earlier works to those of other minorities close to the soil, but his stubborn pursuance of unpalatable subjects—he figures on mining the 1870s for two more Prairie novels—is rooted in his Mennonite traditions. His parents were indeed the sturdy, suffering and indomitable pioneers of fiction. They were among a handful of Mennonites permitted to leave Moscow at the end of the starvation-ridden 1920s. Canadian Pacific shipped them, on credit, from Germany to Canada, and landed them, in the spring of 1931, in drought-stricken southern Saskatchewan. They headed
north to eke out a desperate living in the thin bush soil that didn’t, at least, blow away. Wiebe was born in what was later to become the chicken barn. The farm failed and it was 12 years before the Wiebes paid off their debt to CP, but his parents never ceased to be grateful to Canada for taking them in.
Rudy Wiebe, their seventh child, settled early on a medical career. “I was the only one of my family to enter, much less complete, high school. Medicine was the obvious choice. Every immigrant kid wants to be rich and secure.” But growing up lonely, Wiebe had discovered books and with the encouragement of F. M. Salter,
W. O. Mitchell’s mentor, he began writing. Scrapbook, a short story about the death of his older sister anthologized in Where Is the Voice Coming From?, won a national student writing contest when Wiebe was 21. But he studied both theology and music before settling on writing. Peace Shall Destroy Many, written as an MA thesis and accepted by the first publisher to see it, wasn’t published until he was 28.
Since then, Wiebe has labored as hard and as seriously at writing as his parents did on their scrap of bush farm. He regularly works 10and 12-hour days, sandwiching his writing between the classes he conducts, brown-bagging it because he re-
gards long lunches as an obscene waste of time. Summers are spent on research and writing. It took him six years to write Big Bear, three to do Scorched-Wood, but he has produced an impressive body of shorter works. He has written a raft of short stories, dozens of articles and reviews, and several TV and film scripts. (Shooting starts next month on a feature film, The Mad Trapper, starring Oliver Reed, with a script by Wiebe based on one of his own stories.) As well, he has edited four shortstory collections. His first play, Far As the Eye Can See, played to good reviews in Edmonton and Toronto last year; a TV play called Someday Soon, based on the Mani-
toba-North Dakota dispute over the Garrison Dam, was shown twice by the CBC.
Wiebe’s emphasis on religion is also in the Mennonite tradition. Tall, spare and bearded, he looks not unlike an Old Testament prophet; often, he sounds like one. “In the post-Freudian world, matters of the spirit have been neglected for matters of the viscera. You can read a dozen novels without knowing that religion, the spiritual strivings of man, exist. And they’re the most significant element in man’s nature. The nature of a man’s soul controls what happens in his body. Throughout the ages, all the great writers have been committed to a spiritual and moral view of man and the universe. The morality of the world is built in. Man can’t escape it. He can pretend he is free, but he is not.”
An unfashionable view. The “Me Generation” that might be turned on by Wiebe’s mysticism—when he found Big Bear’s medicine bag in a museum, he was overwhelmed by its power—is not up to the convoluted complexities of Riel’s religious visions in The Scorched-Wood People. Even historian George Woodcock argued, in a review, that it was unfortunate Wiebe could not separate “the purpose of historical fiction, which is to give us a plausible image and feeling of the past, from that of the historical moralist, which is to apportion blame, signal merit and formulate lessons.” Impossible, snorts Wiebe. “The whole point is to give readers a sense and understanding of history from a biased point of view. It doesn’t help to be accurate to the historical facts as we know them. What is important is to understand the people that were here before us.”
To capture the spirit of Big Bear, Wiebe spent a summer retracing the chiefs journeys, from Cold Lake, Alberta, to Bear Paw Mountain in Montana. One night, he camped alone at Tramping Lake, south of Cut Knife, Sask. The Indians named the lake because they believe the Big Spirit sucked the buffalo into the earth there. They say if you’re blessed you can still hear the buffalo tramping around beneath the crust of the earth. “But people are so deadened by pseudo science, so afraid of being bored, so bolstered by TV, radio and magazines, they’re not open to experiences like that,” says Wiebe, who is. That night, he clearly heard the rumble of the buffalo beneath the earth. Just as he knows the air is thick with watchers from the past. When Wiebe looks out his university office at the North Saskatchewan River, he sees Indians arrive to trade furs at Fort Edmonton as plainly as most people see the ornamental spruce planted by the government on the old site.
Wiebe intends to use his time in Calgary to get on with his next novel. His literary influences are Tolstoy, who “created the Russian people in all their range and complexity,” and Faulkner, who did the same with American southerners. “The Canadian West has to be created that way too.” Wiebe intends to do it.^