Savage confronts prairie’s sad forgetting

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November 15, 2012

 

A Geography of Blood:
Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape
By Candace Savage
Greystone/David Suzuki Foundation, 214 pages, $26.95

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

It’s both gratifying and unnerving to read a book that simultaneously challenges and affirms one’s own struggle with Western Canadian history. Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood is such a book. And I’m not the only one to think so: two days after I finished reading it, and was ruminating on this review, Savage won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize. Ironically, the winner is yet another of those titles created by Greystone Books, an imprint of the backruptcy-ridden Douglas and McIntyre. (Sad proof that publishing good, relevant books is not enough in today’s beset publishing world?)

Savage obviously put her entire heart, soul and intellect into A Geography of Blood: it’s a personal, thoughtful and sternly researched piece of writing in which the author confronts the literally buried history surrounding the small (population 600) Saskatchewan town of Eastend, where she and her partner have bought a get-away property. In this confrontation, she calls into question the entire triumphalist “settler history” of Canada. An august member of the Royal Society of Canada and the Rachel Carson Institute honour roll, Savage is the author of over two dozen books on the natural world and its denizens. This book should give her the national and international reputation she so richly deserves.

Older Canlit readers will recall that Eastend is the site of Wallace Stegner’s iconic book Wolf Willow, which I’ve always thought was a proven precursor to today’s creative nonfiction just by its very subtitle: A History, A Story and A Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.

Once she gets over the delights of the quaint seclusion, the prairie light and the terrain where “the plains of northern Montana meet and morph into the prairies of southern Saskatchewan,” Savage, like any honest researcher, becomes obsessed with what and who preceded European settlement. And that, of course, was once-immense herds of buffalo and First People’s long inhabitation of the land around the Cypress Hills.

Savage does not have to dig very deeply before she discovers the full import of the past: Big Bear, Little Pine, Lucky Man and the ensuing 1883 confrontation with the heartless deceit of “the Great Mother” Queen Victoria and her minions. While personally searching out the “lost” history buried within the Cypress Hills terrain, Savage interviews a contemporary woman, Jean Francis Oakes, also known as Piyeso ka-petowitak (Thunder Coming Sounds Good). While trying to internalize Oakes’s hunger-camp stories, Savage writes one of the most compelling sentences in the book: “There are limits to my capacity for shame and sadness.”

And this is the essential message of A Geography of Blood: that the shameful stories of how the prairies were wrested from the “savages” and “settled,” must be told. And retold — until Canada’s collective capacity for both shame and sadness is replaced by a new, inclusive narrative in which First Nations people at last enjoy equal rights and opportunities as citizens.

Lynne Van Luven grew up on a farm near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, which is surrounded by five reservations, further legacies of the hunger camps

 

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