restricted access Prairie Women: Images in American and Canadian Fiction, and: Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence (review)
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Reviewed by
Carol Fairbanks. Prairie Women: Images in American and Canadian Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. 300 pp. $22.00.
Helen M. Buss. Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Margaret Laurence. English Literary Studies 34. Victoria: U of Victoria P, 1985. 88 pp. pb. $6.50.

In her well-documented study of 120 works of fiction by prairie women writers, thrity-two Americans and thirty-four Canadians, Carol Fairbanks has set out to "re-vision" the lives of prairie women in the United States and Canada: "looking back, seeing with new eyes, and entering old texts from a feminist critical prespective." She moves through chapters on "Women and the Prairie Landscape," "First Wave Women," "White Women and Indians," "Second Wave Women," "The Prairie Town," and "Prairie Born, Prairie Bred" to the final [End Page 641] and climatic "'Miyopayiwin'—The Unity of All Things under Sky."

Her final chapter's affirmation, inspired by the Canadian Byrna Barclay's Summer of the Hungry Pup (1982), is a picture of an Indian woman and a white woman, both grandmothers, turning together, "drawing," in Barclay's words, "the long line in a circle around them: the protective circle of prairie." They are "garmented with space, protected and defined, yet at the same time free and unhampered in their view of the universe." Much earlier in the book Fairbanks quoted Henry Kreisel's polarized images of man on the prairies: "man, the giant-conqueror, and man, the insignificant dwarf always threatened by defeat." "When Kreisel says man," Fairbanks adds, "he obviously means males. Women have not been trapped in this dichotomy. They have rarely identified themselves as giant-conquerors and thus have been able to accommodate themselves to a landscape that insists on being accepted on its own terms." Fairbanks is polarizing too, as throughout her work the honesty of her selections abundantly demonstrates: there were some women who conquered, but mere were many women who were defeated. Still her argument is a welcome corrective to Kreisels too widely accepted dictum.

All of Fairbanks' chapters are instructive, and all of them, especially considering the large number of works she handles, are well stated and abundantly documented. Most impressive of all is the respect with which she treats each and every one of her texts, regardless of vast disparities of literary quality among them. This very even-handedness has its drawbacks, of course: Nellie McClung was a literary ancestress of Margaret Laurence, but their works are poles apart as finished and satisfying creations of each artist's imagination. Nellie was always in a hurry, a proselytizer for our settling of the west, and unremittingly a didactic reformer; Laurence is first and foremost a writer, and her work shows evidence of a Canadian fictional tradition that Nellie helped make but mat Laurence has assimilated, then transcended, so that her characters' dilemmas reach far beyond regional or national boundaries. Exactly the same remark could be made about most, if not all, of the various American authors when set beside Willa Cather.

There are also lacunae caused by Fairbanks' concentration on fiction. McClung, she says, "was not particularly interested in the landscape per se"; a reading of the autobiography, Clearing in the West, provides ample contradiction to this statement. It is there, in fact, that her linkages with Margaret Laurence became most evident, particularly in her descriptions of the beauties of the prairie landscape. Similarly, Laura Goodman Salverson's Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter, mentioned by Fairbanks in other contexts, provides in itself a casebook on comparative American-Canadian immigrant experience because Salverson and her family encountered both countries. And Gabrielle Roy's memoir, La Détresse et L'Enchantement, puts a completely unremarked context around all her fiction. Its first lines contain this sentence: "I do not know how old I was when I first realized that I was an outsider in my own country" (my translation).

Context, of course, is the crucial factor in this as in all comparative works. It is a pity, I think, that Fairbanks introduces the settling of the American west with the crassly pejorative words of Sacvan Bercovitch: "a pluralistic pragmatic people openly living in...