By Bruce Allen Powe (Lester and Orpen Dennys, 288 pages,
In 1935 the people of Alberta, devastated by drought and the Great Depression, elected the popular radio evangelist William (Bible Bill) Aberhart as premier. The leader of the burgeoning Social Credit movement, Aberhart promised radical new monetary policies that he said would not only heal Alberta’s economy but pay a dividend of $25 a month to every citizen.
The desperation and feverish hopes of that era of “funny money” still persist in the memories of many older Canadians. Now, the peculiar atmosphere of Depression Alberta has been made accessible to
everyone in Bruce Allen Powe’s fine fourth novel,
The Aberhart Summer.
Powe has skilfully
welded the struggles of his youthful heroes onto the oppressive heat and political frenzy of the summer of 1935. The result is a tale that reverberates with pathos and mystery.
The Aberhart Summer takes the form of a reminiscence by the middle-aged Douglas Sayers, who stumbles upon the ghosts of his past while cleaning out the family’s old Edmonton home after his mother’s death. In 1935 Sayers was 15, loitering away his vacation in the drowsy middle-class neighborhood where his father taught school. The summer would have slipped uneventfully away if Sayers and a friend had not discovered their popular gang leader, Hamilton (Babe) Roothe, swinging by his neck from a barn rafter, an apparent suicide. As Sayers probes the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death, the loss of the charismatic Roothe becomes a symbol for the evanescence of youthful innocence. But Sayers is no sleuth, and what he “discovers” falls less into the realm of hard evidence than into profound social observation. More inclined to gape than to act, Doug Sayers becomes the window through which to glimpse the minds of a people who, for a few months at least, were convinced that they hovered on the
brink of epoch-making changes.
Powe, a 58-year-old native of Edmonton who now lives in Toronto, condenses the hopes of those Albertans in the figure of Albert Roothe, Babe’s older brother. Albert is a compelling illustration of Turgenev’s famous thesis in his novel Fathers and Sons: when the ^discriminating powers of youth are wedded with ideological fervor, the results can be monstrous. Albert is so consumed with visions of the Social Credit millenium that he cannot react with normal human sorrow to his brother’s suicide. Sayers observes that “Albert’s rage at his brother was for letting him down, for lousing up his own future, for stirring up doubts about the stability of the Roothe bloodline, possibly for creating skepticism about his own faith in the demanding political struggles to come and for taking the ultimate step without leaving any hint as to why.” Albert also fails in his relationship with his girlfriend, Jean, a canny, caring woman who might have made him happy. When he appears later in the novel, Albert is a much older man: a cabinet minister who cynically downplays his earlier enthusiasm.
Albert is not the only character
whose beliefs make him tragic: in a gripping vignette Powe describes a picnic of German Albertans energetically stiffening their arms in the Nazi salute. And he depicts mass manipulation of another kind at a fundamentalist Bible college, where the beautiful Diane Thorpe, Babe’s first and last love, is turned into just another plain, pious face in a dowdy dress. Fortunately, Powe’s vision is not limited to such phenomena. He balances the mass hysteria of the times with such likable, earthy figures as Doug’s mother and father, who manage to maintain both their sanity and civility. Mrs. Sayers is a wry, rather slovenly woman who is rarely without a library book or a cigarette: “Our mashed potatoes were always sprinkled with grey ash, our milk speckled,” reflects Doug. Her husband is a skeptical socialist, one of the minority that voted against the Aberhart tide. Powe nicely symbolizes the Sayers’ patience amid the irrational storms of men as he shows them waiting out a heat wave in their cool basement. Such tableaux subtly suggest that human goodness and decency have a quiet, enduring power which political ideology can neither fathom nor crush.
For all its disparagement of Social Credit, the novel gives a surprisingly balanced treatment of Aberhart himself. A strident public speaker, he is shown to be an avuncular, gentle person in private. (“His voice was soft and rich,” writes Powe, “not the way it sometimes was when he bellowed from a platform.”) And although he is the most powerful individual in Alberta, Aberhart is not all powerful: Powe balances his presence by introducing Pete Thorpe, Diane’s beleaguered brother. A stutterer ostracized by the local boys, Pete has one outstanding talent—mimicry. He can turn an entire tramload of heads with his perfect rendition of Aberhart’s drawl; like the clowns in Shakespeare, he reminds the reader that no great man is without a shadow of absurdity.
There are flaws in The Aberhart Summer, but they are few: the depiction of the Cawners, a redneck family whose sons terrorize the local children, veers toward cliché. And Powe has an aggravating tendency to jump to new scenes before the action at hand can truly ripen. Still, The Aberhart Summer is a compelling novel; it plunges deeply into the complicated thicket of the Canadian character. By showing a community of Canadians at their best and worst, Powe has not only written a fine entertainment but he has revealed some of the complex subterranean forces that shape a common destiny.
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