Friday, 14 September 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Candace Savage's 'A Geography of Blood'

   After a stint of teaching Honda execs, affluent housewives, and USA-bound university students in Tokyo, and then travelling eastward (from Koh Chang in southeastern Thailand by fishing boat to Jaisalmer in northwestern India by train), I arrived home in Victoria, where an unfinished university degree and Profound Questions About My Future awaited me.
   My then boyfriend, who'd taught in the same school with me in the ritzy Aoyama district of Tokyo but could not ultimately bear living in such a crowded and consumeristic metropolis, had returned much earlier to Canada and decided to settle halfway between the city he'd left (Victoria) and the one he'd grown up in (Windsor). He chose Saskatoon. 
   Probably quite happy to continue avoiding Profound Questions About My Future, I spent the summer with him. Until that point the furthest east I'd been inside Canada was Calgary. My prejudiced expectations about Saskatchewan were founded on tried-and-true images familiar to all Canadians: immense fields, long straight roads that eventually merged with the horizon, infinitely boring flatness. (Though "flyover states" is a dismissive American concept invented to distinguish east coast and west coast cultural meccas from the supposedly inferior middle, I'll bet that there's an analogous idea that applies to Canadian attitudes toward prairie provinces.)

   That July and August we drove around the province in a finicky, backfiring emerald green VW pickup (from the Flower Power era) that ran fairly well on highways but tended to stall at intersections (at which point I—the non-driver—would have to get out, run to the rear, and heave the beast forward until the engine finally turned). To this day I harbour no love for that vehicle. 
   Besides the heat, what struck me most about the prairie countryside was the vast emptiness. Between huge parcels of cultivated land we'd pass by an occasional truck or tractor. We saw few people and even less wildlife.

   When I returned later that year, the situation had changed: compared to Victoria, December weather in Saskatoon had demands: "Brace yourself," it seemed to say, "and prepare to submit." We drove away from the city one night and at a point where the city lights were no longer visible we pulled over and walked into a field of grain stubble and snow drifts. If that moment of being so little, so absolutely insignificant didn't exactly precipitate an existential crisis, it did manage to violently shake my sense of confidence about my pivotal centrality. (Okay, okay, that I'm writing a blog and have established a career of teaching in classrooms might indicate to that once this moment passed, I rebounded quickly and returned to my usual sense of self-worth!)

   Where is Candace Savage's book in all this paean to self-absorption, you may be asking. Well, it's here. During my prairie summer, we visited the southern edges of the province. My sense then was not much different than the expectations I'd arrived with months earlier: I, a bit bored of wheat fields, and fond of sea and mountains and coniferous forests, saw emptiness, flatness, vastness. Such was my sad creativity then that I didn't bother to envision this place in another epoch. It looked as though the landscape was eternal, so I assumed that was the case.
   One of the terrific aspects of Savage's book (and the sentence construction is meant to imply that there are several terrific aspects to the book) is that through her accounts of wandering near her second home in Eastend, she makes the reader who holds that commonplace view of the prairies (re: emptiness, flatness, vastness) understand the falseness of the impression. 
   Digging around, and visiting seemingly unremarkable lakes or piles of rock and then talking of their history, she manages to repopulate the area with the thriving cultures and dynamic ecosystems that existed there for millennia; she draws attention to the immeasurable loss that resulted from the arrival of European settlers and, well, capitalist enterprise. 
   Savage's book provides the best kind of education: you fully enjoy the experience and walk away not only with an alternate view of your reality but an openness to ponder the significance of your newly acquired insight.

[My review appears in the Globe and Mail.]

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