Rudy Wiebe has been producing and publishing his short fiction for over a half-century. He is regularly included among the “icons” of Canadian literature, with Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Hugh MacLennan and Hugh Garner. In his depictions of the Canadian west, he has been compared with Robert Kroetsch and W. O. Mitchell.
Wiebe’s Mennonite family fled the persecutions of Stalinist Russia. His writing has often dealt directly with that specifically European experience, but that background has also invested him with a unique perspective on the life and experience of aboriginal Canadian peoples. He grew up on the prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta among others whose histories consisted of persecution, marginalization and forced migrations from an ancestral home. Thus throughout his work run the themes of displacement and wandering, of the mixture of fact and truthful fiction that forms the basis of any oral history, and of voice – not the defining stylistic “voice” of the writer (though Wiebe’s can be seen developing, maturing, crystallizing in these pages) but the sound and timbre and cadence of the storyteller’s voice.
The University of Alberta Press has here produced an enormously valuable resource. This is a volume of substance, in its content and as a physical object.
Its cover, a detail from Vivian Thierfelder’s painting Skull of a Bird, combines familiar prairie imagery and a talismanic mystery that lures the reader inside. The book’s trade-paperback format suggests that it be carried around in a briefcase or a back-pack and returned to over and over again. It is a book that could comfortably be shelved both with the collected works of Shakespeare and The Compleat Beatles.
Organized thematically, rather than chronologically, this collection illuminates the development of an artist. Dates appearing at the beginning of each story indicate both the time of its creation and publication, so that a student of writing can not only observe the maturation of a literary voice but ponder the occasional gaps between the completion of a story and its editorial acceptance (or the period of time between the author’s having placed the final period and making the determination that no improving alterations can be made). It is comprehensive, in that it includes every short-story Wiebe has written over a period of fifty-five years: from the regularly anthologized stories – which have been read by almost every living person who has ever taken a course in Canadian literature – to the quirky and obscure. It also includes four stories which have never previously been published at all.
In his preface to the collection Wiebe observes that “…it seems that the stories of our lives are a kind of convergence of streams, which, gathering together over a vast landscape, eventually flow into rivers, lakes, perhaps as far as the possible oceans of history.” This is an atlas of those streams. In examining the courses of each individually and ultimately surveying the ocean they gather to form, we can more clearly imagine the contours of our own shores – and view more sharply the line of our own horizon.
Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes. He has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Québec.