In his introduction to Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices, Robert Penn Warren wrote, "Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth with live, and in our living, constantly remake.
Canadian novelist and historian Fred Stenson has been remaking history for much of his career, never more so than during the previous decade, when his trilogy about the early history of Western Canada was published. The Trade was published in 2000, followed by Lightning (2003) and The Great Karoo (2008). The Trade begins in the 1820s and chronicles the rise of the Hudson's Bay Company and the settling of Canadian West. The Great Karoo follows the exploits of the Canadian Mounted Rifles as they fight alongside the English in the Boer War at the close of the 19th century.
The Book Serf asked Stenson the following questions:
BS: In his review of The Great Karoo, Ken McGoogan opens with two provocative answers to the question, Why the popularity and artistic success of the Canadian historical novel? He wonders if it's because Canada never had a successful revolution, never completely cut its ties with the British Empire; and he wonders if it's because history is suppressed in Canadian schools and universities.
Were/are you as dissatisfied with the 'official' history of Canada as others seem to have been. (I love Sheilagh Fielding's alternative history of Newfoundland in Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams.)
This is becoming a ridiculously long question, but I'm put in mind of your newspaper letter writer in The Trade who opines that "That's how history gets started. Some fella putting a line under a name ..."
Is that your view, as well?
FS: Ken McGoogan’s Globe & Mail review of The Trade was a fine review, and I liked the questions he raised and the ideas he pondered. For example, his proposition that Canadians are driven to write historical novels because we had no revolution is provocative. It suggests that a revolution is a kind of built-in commanding narrative that everyone can learn proudly, whereas a merely political evolution commands less respect and excitement.
While I accept that might describe what’s behind some Canadian historical novels, I, as a Westerner, have my own reasons to take a run at official history. A usual complaint from Westerners is that Canadian history has emanated from central Canada and has been forced on the rest of us. As someone to whom history matters, that is an unsatisfying status quo. I suspect there are several of us who write historical fiction because we are unsatisfied, on some level, with that view. It may or may not have to do with the presence or absence of a revolution; it may be, more simply, about accuracy. It may only be that we don’t like the characterization of our place and people in the tale that goes on being told.
I suspect that other historical novelists in Canada respond to similar dissatisfactions. Even the Maritime Provinces, with a post-contact history so much older than central Canada’s, may feel pushed to accept the Upper Canada-Lower Canada version of the national historical script. I don’t know if this has goaded the likes of Wayne Johnston and Michael Crummy to write their own fictional histories of Newfoundland, but it would not surprise me if it did.
As for Western Canada, our experience is often considered to be no older than the West’s purchase by Canada from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869. That’s the best case scenario; some would argue our history begins in 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. Perhaps that’s why I was lured to the HBC story as the foundation of Western Canadian development (its charter was given by England in 1670) and am lured as well by Metis history which began in the West in the 1700s, or by First Nations history which goes back ten thousand years or more. Balking at “newness” would be a good reason to put fictional flesh on a different, older story.
Once I found my way into the fur trade era, I discovered it had its own centrisms and rigid hierarchy: its own lying history in which English governors proclaimed themselves the chosen people. I picked William Gladstone as an over-seer of the fur trade time because he was a creature who grew up with, and out of, the West. Obviously the First Nations and Metis people were here before him, and had more claim, but Gladstone, represented something new. He came West as an HBC boat-building apprentice from Montreal in 1848, then chose to stay and make his life in Western Canada. He never considered home to be anywhere else but the West and died here just as Jimmy Jock Bird did.
In my novel, The Trade, Gladstone gives vent to home-grown theories of history in the form of notes to the editor of the local newspaper that is publishing his memoir. Based on his having seen both the original occurrences and what the first round of historians made of them (and being a literate labourer, then carpenter), he has an almost unique perspective.
Trying to see through his experience, I came up with the idea that history had been wrong from the beginning because it chose to bow to and portray the powerful as opposed to the majority. I wanted his feelings about history to provide a platform of reasoning underneath the choice of Ted Harriott and Jimmy Jock Bird as protagonists. Through Gladstone, I hoped to attract the reader’s acceptance of Harriott as protagonist, because he was the one Gladstone admired most out of all the men he worked for; because Harriott was the only kind man Gladstone had ever served. For the record, William Gladstone did publish his memoir in the Rocky Mountain Echo (published in Pincher Creek, Alberta, at the turn of the 20th century) when he was near the end of his long life. The correspondence with the editor which I present is fictional.
BS: And yet, you're not a prosyltizer, are you?
FS: It sounds like a socialist agenda, I suppose, and it makes the act of writing sound much more ideologically driven than it was. In fact, I might have chosen my protagonists for no better reason than that they reminded me of myself. I am the son of southern Alberta farmers. I feel more naturally akin to the clerks and translators and apprentices of the fur trade world than I do to the governors and chiefs.
Beyond that, a curiosity pushed me to see what history becomes if a different cast of characters is moved to the centre and the likes of George Simpson are sent to the sidelines. This choice of who is central to a narrative is a profound adjustment of history. It has traditionally meant a focus on the most visible movers and shakers, the ones who swung the most lead — or money. So why not challenge that? Almost by definition it cannot be everyone’s truth, everyone’s history.
BS: And how did you find history as taught in Canadian schools?
FS: I was asked to comment on whether history has been suppressed in Canadian schools, and if this was another motivation for me as a novelist dealing with my country’s history. Though I believe a lot of academic historians have been stirred by exactly the right kinds of motives, and have done much to challenge encrusted visions of history, I would say that education in Canada has been, overall, a promoter of false and dangerous history: reductive, saccharine, relentlessly positive; founded on the Protestant work ethic; supportive of international law’s odd notion that aboriginal people needed and therefore must accept European civilization as superior to their own. Of all those tendencies, I think it is the reduction and whitewash that offended me most, and the fact that, after lying like sidewalks to the young, social studies teachers inevitably blame their students for not being “interested in our history.” I believe that children are excellent at smelling out a lie; their instinct for this may be biological it’s so strong and accurate. If they sense that they are being told lies, then who but the fools among them would have any interest in learning them? And of course there is the oft-told truth that unvarnished tell-all history is more fun to learn than the white-washed version that serves up goodness rather than truth.
BS: George Simpson was at the head of the Hudson's Bay Company, and yet he's peripheral to your story. What was your take on him?
FS: George Simpson is for me the poster boy of bad history. Up until a certain point in our historical narrative, most everyone including the universities wanted to present leaders as heroes. They seemed to do it instinctively. So did the popular historians. Also, values have changed, and at an earlier time, our society admired, more or less without question, the kind of iron leader who made the freight canoes and York Boat brigades run on time; who could set records for traveling across Western Canada by canoe. That Simpson was petty, vengeful, jealous, cruel, probably racist etc. was deliberately overlooked. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.
Even in the present some popular historians still take a nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach to Simpson’s myriad Metis mistresses. The almost certain fact that some of those young women did not wish to be his bed mate, had boyfriends of their own with whom they were in love, is basically the story line of The Trade. Rather than depict the Governor (Simpson) as a powerful captain of industry, I depicted him as a villain, and a nasty one. Interestingly, even several of his distant descendants who I have met along the road, feel he had it coming.
BS: How did you come to write a historical novel so full of warts?
FS: I do not see the point of tidying history up before it is unveiled, as if it were a house to whom you had invited guests. It is merely the story of all of us. Just like white people have largely stopped the once common practice of removing coloured persons from their family tree, writers and teachers of Canadian history should get past the practice of removing the inconvenient details from history.
Something very simple stands at the root of The Trade and that is my reading of William Gladstone’s diary. As far as I know, that diary is the only working man’s (non-officer’s) account of the fur trade in what became the province of Alberta. Gladstone’s story was so different in fact and values from anything else written about the trade that I instantly regarded it as the basis of a possible novel. If the highest regarded men (Simpson, John Rowand) were Gladstone’s most hated enemies, if the most peripheral individuals (Ted Harriott) were his heroes, then a very different story was suggested. I wanted to write that story.
BS: Why revisit the Canadian West of the 19th century? What sort of fodder did that century and that locale provide you as a novelist?
FS: The 19th century west is where my own life history was founded, though I wasn’t born in southern Alberta until 1951. For one example, I went to school with Blackfoot-speaking Pikuni; played basketball against a Kanai residential school. The Pikuni and Kanai historically resided in southern Alberta because it was a great and envied buffalo country; because the most famous of the buffalo jumps, Head-Smashed-Inn and Old Woman, had been there for thousands of years; because Treaty #7 in 1877, placed their reserves in Southwestern Alberta. I knew them because my own ancestors had chosen to homestead in the tranche of country between the Peigan and Blood Reserves. So it is not out of the way to say that my life history, the form of that life, was constructed in the 19th century — or in fact long before.
Just because it’s fun to create these examples, I’ll create another. I was born into Southern Alberta ranch country, close to the Rocky Mountains, close to the Montana border. It was Alberta’s oldest ranch country, preceding even the 1881 legislation that created giant lease ranches later in the 19th century. Ranching really began with the first Mounted Policeman (1874), some of whom took their discharge as soon as possible and went to Montana for cows to turn loose on the foothills, where buffalo no longer roamed.
That meant that some of the earliest cowboys and ranchers in Western Canada founded families in the locales of my childhood. My father worked on one of those old ranches as a lad of 15, and learned a lot of the colourful western lingo that influenced my own language profoundly from those men and their descendents. Some will say Southern Albertans talk like we do because of 1950s American oil and gas people, but that’s generally untrue. It is really the 19th century that speaks through us.
A post script to the above relates to my novel, The Trade. As a youth, I can remember James Riviere coming to our house in the early spring to buy hay, because he ranched in the mountains where winter hung on for a long time after grass was growing farther east. James was in his seventies and amazed me by his ability to “throw the diamond” on a pickup truck towering with hay bales. You needed to be lithe for this and strong and he still was. James was a Metis man whose family lived along the Rocky Mountain east slope. His father was a famous Frenchman who trained dog teams for silent movies. His mother had been the daughter of William Gladstone and his Cree Metis wife: the same William Gladstone who came West in 1848 as a Hudson’s Bay Company apprentice builder of York boats, and stayed on to retire in Gladstone Valley a half hour drive northwest of the country my parents ran cattle in; the same William Gladstone who is a character in The Trade.
In one of your questions you refer to William Faulkner’s comment that “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” I guess that is my answer in brief. The past is always around me here in southern Alberta, so I write about it.
There is also the fact, already mentioned, that Canada has an official history that moves from East to West. I think that has led to inaccuracy and biases that dog the west to this day. It is also the source of an inferiority complex in the West that hides under a mask of arrogance. I am telling not “the” but “a” counter-story: a geographical counter-story and a class counter-story: one that begins geographically and culturally in the west and spreads out from there. I do believe that such shifts of perspective are important to social change.
BS: Porfirio Diaz once said, famously, Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States! Could the same be said of Canada?
FS: A wonderfully loaded question. There is a belief, in some quarters, that the Southern part of Alberta, including Calgary, is the most American place in Canada. Tom Flanagan, once Prime Minister Stephen Harpers’s key advisor and a professor at the University of Calgary, said this recently in an article about Alberta for the Globe & Mail. The article was largely “historical” and I really should have challenged it; I guess I will challenge it now. The truth about Southern Alberta is, rather, that, like most parts of the country, it is has its share of American influence and always has. Whether it is more true of southern Alberta than, say, Toronto, is arguable. I have spent quite a lot of time in Toronto in the last few years, and I enjoy the city, but I have never been anywhere in Canada that is more dominated by the politics and thought in the United States. They are more glued to American newspapers and news stations than anyone I have ever known in southern Alberta.
Getting back to history, particularly the fur trade, which is the longest European root in Western Canadian history, one finds that the English-owned and chartered Hudson’s Bay Company was in the driver’s seat most of the time from 1670 to the 1830s, which is a long time. When it was challenged, it was challenged from Montreal (and less so by a few Northeastern U.S. concerns that finally melded with the Montreal ones). What I’m getting at is that, in all that time, American influence in the far west was almost nil.
When the Montreal fur traders merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1821, there came a period of total domination that probed well below the 49th parallel. In other words, the history was French Canadian, Orkney, English, Scottish, Irish, First Nations and Metis but hardly American at all. The last three decades of the English Company’s dominance down to the Missouri were thanks to the Lewis and Clarke Expedition’s having killed a Blackfoot on the Marias River. The Blackfoot speakers regarded themselves in a state of war with the Americans from 1806 until about 1830, when the American Fur Company bent over backwards to win forgiveness and built some AFC forts on the upper Missouri. At this time, American influence crossed the 49th but there were still no American fur forts there.
The whisky trade, 1869-73, caused a sudden change. American whisky entrepreneurs came across the 49th into future-Southern Alberta and built Ft. Whoop-Up and other whisky forts. The forts were supplied by a couple of big trading companies in Ft. Benton (head of navigation on the Missouri at the time). The whisky men are invariably described as American, as lawless Civil War vets, etc. but there were a number of Canadians (French and English) in the mix.
The same is true of the Cypress Hills Massacre of Assiniboine Indians by whisky traders and wolfers in 1873. It was this event (or rather its publicity) that forced the Canadian Prime Minister to do something about a truly horrible lawless vicious situation, in which Indians were frequently shot and poisoned as if they were dogs, and in which they committed much violence toward themselves. The Canadian Mounted police were born out of this situation, and from then forward the border between future-Alberta and Montana had meaning.
There is a whitewashed version of this story in which the American whisky men run away from the Mounties, back to the U.S. In fact, most went nowhere. They simply gave up whisky trading and went to work for the Mounties or supplying the Mounties. These Americans, and the ones who came afterwards to punch cows in the ranch era, are the true source of American-ness in Southern Alberta. A bit later Mormon people would come from Utah to squat, buy lease ranches, and homestead, and these too have lent American tones to our culture. But at the same time, the local towns in Southern Alberta (Pincher Creek, Ft. Macleod, Calgary) were little Canadas in the late 19th century, with Ontario and Quebec storekeepers, English landlords, and small minorities from elsewhere in Canada. American and British influence dominated the countryside while Canadian influence dominated the towns. Neither was stronger than the other.
I’m not sure why it is that Southern Alberta is criticized for its American-ness when basically anywhere along the 49th parallel (where most Canadian live) can hardly escape U.S. influence. My theory, such as I have one, is that cowboy hats and boots, and western drawls, are more visibly derived from U.S. culture than is the New York-borrowed urban lingo of English Montrealers or Torontonians. Either that or it’s just plain prejudice that needs no justification or cause!
I’m not sure if I answered your question or merely sprang off it with a diatribe. Is American influence a problem for Canadian writers? A different kind of problem depending on where you live.
BS: In my PW review of The Trade, I wrote that your prose is "terse and full of motion." Even when you're describing the scenery, as it were, the prose moves! When you put pen to paper (or, less romantically, fingertips to keys) are you thinking of creating pace, of creating rhythm? What do you hope each sentence will achieve? Avoid?
FS: I was quite happy to see your review point to my style, as I’ve put a lot of thought into it over the years. When I was young, I was seduced by Irish literature. I dislike the term “lilt” which has a childish inference to it, but what I liked and longed for in my own style was the pace and rhythm that moved me along so forcefully and pleasingly. In our own literature, Alistair McLeod is probably the most rhythmic and seductive storyteller, where the music of language is as much of a narrative force as the story. Another is Lisa Moore. It is not coincidence, I suspect, that they come from Cape Breton and Newfoundland, places with a profound depth of Gaelic language history.
There has been a tendency among writers who strive to make fiction about the North American West to be minimalists. I have always had an instinct to go against this, to stick up for the colour and rhythm in Western language, and the fact that there is nothing barren and arid about the beauty of the barren and arid landscape.
The U.S. writer Cormac McCarthy has been a great liberator as was the earlier El Paso novelist/painter Tom Lee for writers who write of the West, because they created a template for writing almost floridly of Western experience. Instead of getting hung up on the idea that Western “men” were “men of few words,” they went ahead and created a language that was more about Westerners’ aesthetic worlds than what they said or didn’t say around the fire at night. Also, Cormac McCarthy has caught the depth of the interior life of Western people the way David Adams Richards found that depth in the New Brunswick characters of his fine novels.
“To move” is a goal in my fiction. I try to have every sentence propel into the next; and at the same time to be obedient to the verbal world of the characters. I don’t want sentences to stand straight by themselves; I want everything to lean. I want the fiction to always be emerging out of the moment’s tone and mood, so it’s charged with that moment not just flatly describing it.
BS: Similarly, I've always felt that if one starts out trying to write simply he may end up writing beautifully; but if one starts out trying to write beautifully, disaster often follows.
FS: This is true, but I would go back again to writers like Cormac McCarthy and Canada’s Mark Anthony Jarman and Lisa Moore who do write beautifully, and I believe strive to. I think the beautiful writing that is disastrous is that which ought to have been thrown away. That’s different than saying it should never have been attempted. I find there is far too much careful, competent writing going on. That kind almost always strives to be simple — and often fails there, but less visibly.
BS: I love the way you take a historical figure like Sir George Simpson and turn him into a peripheral figure while elevating Ted Harriott and One Pound One to the stars of the show. I haven't read The Great Karoo yet, but I understand you do something similar there. Why have you shunned The Great Men of History and concentrated your energies elsewhere?
FS: I think I’ve yarned on quite long about this already, so I’ll pass on this good question. Maybe I could say this much: that the “great men of history” have often not been morally great. If, as some say, novels are always moral novels, then perhaps the search for what is good, and for a meaning of goodness, is more difficult to find when writing about the “great men.”
I think “greatness” in the sense I think you mean has too often conferred a kind of moral license—one can do what lesser men cannot. In that sense the great George Simpson could not be a character in The Trade, unless as an antagonist; someone who stands in the way of the good human asperations of others, or who invites others to betray one another and be destroyed by it.
BS: Historical novelists are often accused of reading too much and then regurgitating everything they've learned from their books. How do you walk that line between creating setting and atmosphere while avoiding laundry lists of facts and information that can topple a historical novel?
FS: First of all, I don’t try to eliminate extraneous detail in early drafts. I write them fat if they want to be that way. In later drafts, it becomes clearer and clearer what doesn’t deserve to stay, what facts or circuits of fact do not help yield the story. But of course without a certain amount of detail, the world is not there. The second rule is that not all details are equal — to say the least. One or two well chosen details/facts can have more impact than 50 lesser ones. Novelists often show their greatness in their instinct for the telling detail.
BS: Faulkner once said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." What do you think? Does that quote have anything to do with the way Canadians view themselves today? Can one be informed by the past? Are you trying to answer the question, How did we get here?
FS: All the stuff I wrote in an earlier answer about how my own life generated out of a 19th century past — a past during which my own ancestors were not even present in North America — was about this. There is a continuity from then until now that I live every day, and from which I write.
BS: The Trade is, by the nature of the story you're recreating, a man-centric affair. Do you ever wish that women could play a more prominent role in your fiction? Not trying to be provocative here, just wondering!
FS: I can’t know if every woman who has read The Trade found it to her liking, but those who have told me their feelings have liked it. I know this is not the answer to your question, but it sets up my answer — which is that I feel The Trade is a book about women and about a profoundly female problem, which is women’s traditional lack of political and economic power. Very recently there was an article in the Montreal Gazette about the pay disparity between women and men in academic jobs, especially at the higher ranks, and I would submit that that situation, which has survived five decades of feminism, has its roots in earlier times like our own fur trade.
We live in the hangover of a time when male lives were simply assumed to be more important than female ones, when the birth of a son was celebrated and that of a daughter shrugged at. At the heart of the The Trade is the tragedy of the life of Margaret Pruden, which becomes Ted Harriott’s tragedy because of his genuine love for her. The novel is about whether, in the fur trade, a simple truthful love was possible for ordinary people. Was it possible or would it always be trumped by the trade in humans, the oppression of women and of indentured men?
Now to your actual question: do I wish women could play a more prominent role in my fiction? I could say that it’s true that I do wish this; but that would be a little disingenuous, because, in fact, I could sit down tomorrow and write a historical fiction about Western Canada that was entirely about women. I have yet to do that, perhaps because I am a man; and perhaps as well because I’ve wanted to inhabit lives through which the economic story of the fur trade (then open range ranching, then imperial war) could be told. If history did not allow women the scope to do what I wanted to portray (be fur traders, cowboys and soldiers), I could not have written those novels through their experience. I recognize that this is rather like the argument that used to be made for never writing historical fiction that wasn’t about people of rank.
What I have tried to do is represent the balance between genders that I felt was the truth in each situation. Margaret Pruden’s difficult life as a woman beautiful enough to catch the eye of the Governor when she doesn’t want him is, I hope, as poignant and moving as anything else in the novel — as painful as her partner Ted Harriott’s dilemma, even though more pages are devoted to Harriott. I think this is often evident to women who read the novel. But it is less evident to women who pick up the novel in a store. What I truly wish then is that more women would read my novels and tell me if they feel moved by them.
BS: I love your framing narrator in The Trade. At one point he says, "that makes history the only kind of water that gets cleaner the farther downstream you go." Can you relate that to your trilogy?
FS: I am rather proud of this sentence, for I believe it is importantly true. The privileging of print is one of the ways that we have often got it wrong about history. I was a great fan of James Welch’s fiction and have only recently read his non-fiction Killing Custer. One of the things to be learned from that book is that the century-long misunderstanding of Custer’s annihilation at the Little Big Horn came from not paying attention to the accounts of First Nations’ witnesses.
How often that must have been true, that someone viewed as non-credible would be saying, “I was there and I saw her raped;” or “I was there and I heard him tell his servant to kill the next Indian who came in the door.” Instead we have looked the group of witnesses over, and have listened only to the “credible ones”: meaning the white ones, the literate ones, the ones in positions of power.
Gladstone’s point about water getting cleaner as it goes downstream is meant to extend right to this day where we are still guilty of using the nice certainty of a written piece of evidence, especially if it contains a nice educated turn of phrase, rather than wading through the awkwardness of eyewitness ramblings. In Canada, we have had a ghastly serial murder saga on the West coast, which went unsolved for years while more and more prostitutes were killed because the prostitutes who were providing evidence of the killer’s identity (and who were still on the stroll; still drug-addicted) were not regarded as credible. And so it goes.