Paddling on the Yellowknife River in the summer of 1988, where sparse boreal forest dissolves into the tundra, novelist Rudy Wiebe discovered his future. He was travelling as part of a six-member canoe party intent on retracing a portion of John Franklin’s first expedition to the Arctic
(1819-1922). And Wiebe carried with him a pocket-sized edition of the English explorer’s journals. But Franklin’s dry observations on the land he had passed through in pursuit of the elusive Northwest Passage could not begin to match Wiebe’s own growing excitement at what he saw. Although the canoeists did not encounter another human being in their two weeks of travel, everywhere they looked they found traces of life, past and present: campfire pits, graves marked by circles of stones, the imprint of countless caribou hoofs above the rapids where the animals cross the river on their annual migration. “The whole landscape turned me on,” recalls the 59-year-old Wiebe. “It is so beautiful, so stunningly beautiful.”
Wiebe returned to his home in Edmonton consumed by a desire to write about Canada’s Far North. And as befits one of Canada’s master storytellers, the result was not some travelogue but an ambitious new historical novel, A Discovery of Strangers (Knopf Canada, 317 pages, $27). Released this week, it is a fictionalized account of the first of Franklin’s trio of ill-fated expeditions to the Canadian North (although he survived this one, as well as the next, many of his men did not). The book details the first encounter between the Yellowknife Indians and whites. It is also a tale of love— and lust—beneath the bearskins as one of Franklin’s midshipmen, 22-year-old Robert Hood, woos a beautiful 15-year-old native girl, dubbed Greenstockings by the explorers. And, as ever in Wiebe’s fiction, it is a meditation on the human condition, and on what it means to live, and die, in one of the most unforgiving climates in the world.
With A Discovery of Strangers, Wiebe continues to do what he does best: capture on a broad canvas many of the epic events in Canadian history. First there was Big Bear,
the proud Cree chief who resisted the empty treaty promises of colonial settlers on the plains of Saskatchewan in the 1880s. Wiebe won a 1973 Governor General’s Award for his novel The Temptations of Big Bear, which he is now adapting into a script for a four-hour CBC mini-series to be broadcast next year. Then, with
Recreating the first Arctic expedition of John Franklin The Scorched-Wood People (1977), Wiebe depicted Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the unlikely Métis duo who fought a noble, if ultimately doomed, battle against the Canadian government in the rebellions of 1869 and 1885. And in The Mad Trapper (1980), he resurrected Albert Johnson, the mysterious recluse whose story attracted international attention in 1931 after the RCMP tracked the outlaw through the High Arctic winter.
As he demonstrates in those novels and others, Wiebe is not so much interested in
the dry, historical record of what happened as he is in why it occurred. ‘The factuality means almost nothing unless there’s a larger story told there,” says the author. “And I think the fiction writer can often get at those basic human truths best because, at a certain point, he is not hamstrung by the facts.” Wiebe is also powerfully attracted to characters who see the world in spiritual, rather than material, tenus. In this secular age, that may limit his potential readership. As well, his uncompromising style (the narrative voice is constantly shifting, and sentences sometimes swirl on for a page or more) can be challenging. But to admirers such as University of Toronto English professor W. J. Keith, Wiebe’s subject matter places him in the company of 19th-century Russian author Leo Tolstoy. “I’ve always been impressed by the moral seriousness of his work,” says Keith, who wrote the study Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe (1981). “I think these are the kind of writers who ultimately have staying power.”
Wiebe comes by his interest in spiritual matters honestly. The youngest of seven children, he was born in 1934 in the Speedwell-Jackpine district of Saskatchewan, 170 km northwest of Saskatoon, where Mennonite immigrants were busily carving out homesteads on quarter sections of uncleared bush. The community, which no longer exists, then consisted of a post office, two stores and two small schools. The centre of community life was the local Mennonite Brethren Church.
In many respects, Wiebe had the quintessential prairie childhood for someone of his generation. His ethnic German family, who worked their own homestead, had emigrated from Russia just four years before his birth and Wiebe spoke only German until school age. He lived in a log house and trudged along trails five kilometres each day to \ a one-room schoolhouse where 5 by the time he was in Grade 4 he
had read the only shelf of books available. At home, he pored over the Bible, in both English and German. Lacking most other forms of entertainment, local families would often gather to tell stories about the Old Country, and why they left it. Those tales helped to inspire Wiebe’s 1970 epic novel about Mennonite resettlement, The Blue Mountains of China.
Unable to make much of a living off the harsh bush country, the Wiebes moved to Coaldale in southern Alberta in 1947. Wiebe attended a local Mennonite high school before moving on to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. There, as his master’s thesis in English, he wrote his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. Set in a fictional prairie Mennonite settlement, the book outraged many Mennonites because of its frank depiction of community life, including scenes of adultery and violence. By the time the novel was published in 1962, Wiebe was in Winnipeg editing a weekly Mennonite newspaper—a job he lost due to the controversy. “Having people respond to me so negatively made me think very hard about the power of the written word,” Wiebe says today. “I guess I decided I wanted to be a writer, no matter what. And that’s the way I still see it: you try to write an honest story, and the reader’s response is secondary.”
To write honestly, and from one’s own background, is a lesson that the bearded, teetotalling Wiebe helped instil in a generation of undergraduates who enrolled in his creative writing classes at the University of Alberta. He returned there in 1967 with his wife, Tena (the couple raised three children) , and was a popular teacher until his retirement she years ago. Many of Wiebe’s former students went on to become accomplished authors in their own right. Among them: Aritha van Herk (Places Far From Ellesmere), Myma Kostash (All of Baba’s Children) and Katherine Govier (Hearts of Flame). Govier, who grew up in Edmonton but now lives in Toronto, recalls that Wiebe “fired everyone with an inspired sense of where we were from. He saw it on a very
grand, heroic scale.” Wiebe’s own fiction, Govier adds, is similarly infused with a passionate sense of place and purpose: “He’s a western mythmaker, and that’s a very important comer that he has carved out.”
Wiebe, of course, does not limit himself to writing about Mennonites—or westerners for that matter. For Big Bear and the new novel, he expended a lot of time and energy
trying to get inside the minds and souls of native characters. And, increasingly, his eye is drawn northward. “The North is the core of the Canadian world, although we don’t often think about it,” says the author. “We just keep looking south.”
Wiebe’s research for A Discovery of Strangers included scouring explorers’ journals and even more arcane sources for details of the first Franklin expedition. The record shows that as winter approached in 1821, the expedition—by then two years out of England—stayed too long mapping the previously uncharted Arctic Ocean coastline and missed the annual migration of the caribou, on which they depended for food. Trapped by the early winter ice, they had no choice but to travel over land in a desperate
search for the nomadic Yellowknife Indians who had befriended and fed them the winter before at Fort Enterprise, 450 km to the south. The surviving members of the expedition found the Indians at the same point three months later. But a dozen men had perished in the effort, most from starvation, and some of the survivors had succumbed to cannibalism.
History also yielded a few other tantalizing details. Hood and another midshipman vied for the affections of the native girl Greenstockings—and would have fought a pistol duel over her if a third expedition member had not emptied their weapons of bullets. She later gave birth to Hood’s daughter, but before Hood could see his child he died tragically on the trek back from the Arctic Ocean.
From this collection of facts Wiebe fashions both a love story and a morality play about men who, as he writes, “grow steadily colder while they wait, motionless, or search for something edible in a land where whatever it is they know, or do not know, is killing them.” Adding poignancy to the tale is the foreknowledge that these English explorers, in their relentless ignorance and arrogance, will return
to the Arctic many years later. On the fateful third expedition, Franklin was sent with two ships, the Erebus and Terror, to sail through the Northwest Passage. He and his 133 men perished after the ships became trapped in the winter ice off King William Island.
If occasionally Wiebe appears to be viewing his characters through the prism of 20thcentury political correctness—the female characters sometimes seem unaccountably feminist—that is a minor flaw in a major work of art. In A Discovery of Strangers, Wiebe provides some of the most evocative prose yet about the Canadian North. In a description of caribou migrating across the tundra, he writes: “From every direction more and more of them will drift together, thousands and tens of thousands drawn together by the lengthening light into the worn paths of their necessary journey, an immense dark river of life flowing north to the ocean, to the calving grounds where they know themselves to have been bom.”
The land. First and always with Wiebe it is the land. During the 1988 canoe trip, Wiebe and his companions raised a cairn on the highest point of Dogrib Rock, placing there a note that marked the date and purpose of their journey. Then, after gazing again at the endless horizon, they added: “A Land Beyond Words.” And so it was, until Rudy Wiebe gave it a voice.
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