- West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature
Like the curate's egg, Sorensen's collection is very good in parts, though this disparate miscellany on western (and sometimes northern) Canadian writing will be neither ground-breaking nor essential commentary for most readers of prairie literature. The editor attempts in her protracted and diffuse introduction to situate 'west of Eden' (a 'Biblically undocumented location') and make it all hook up by encircling the metaphor, but her centre does not, in the end, hold up, for critical attention is at times diverted south (to the teaching of Kroetsch in Australia) and north (to Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers and Ostenso's Wild Geese as reflections of indigeneity and nordicity). The seventeen essays by authors from a dozen institutions, half located in western Canada, are grouped in five sections dealing with place, early and established voices, and cultural studies and pedagogy. Seven of the essays focus on major figures (Grove, Ross, Laurence, Wiebe, and Kroetsch), while the remainder direct the reader to such diverse subjects as the urban poetry of Coopsammy, the songs of Neil Young, film adaptations, gophers, prairie criticism, and regional teaching strategies.
Some of these essays can be recommended with enthusiasm. Dennis Cooley provides an insightful survey of prairie criticism to 1998. Pamela Banting offers a spirited defence of Butala's The Perfection of the Morning against the readings of Lousley and Kamboureli. Jenny Kerber's analysis of Madeline Coopsammy's 'post-prairie' urban poetry broadens the concept of 'home place' by linking Manitoba to the Caribbean in an engaging and convincing way. Gaby Divay's survey of Grove research, Brian Johnson's exploration of nordicity and ethnicity in Wild Geese, Nora Stovel's reading of The Stone Angel as Laurence's 'last African novel,' and Elspeth Tulloch's examination of four National Film Board adaptations of prairie stories all provide new approaches and insights that have considerable critical merit. [End Page 494]
These assets are, however, tempered by a number of problematic aspects in the collection's substance and style, beginning with the editor's admitted exclusion of any unifying argument. Acknowledging that she is 'neither a Canadianist nor a specialist in prairie literature,' Sorensen has fashioned the collection for undergraduates, high-school students, and the general public under the aegis of the 'Christian directive of a small private prairie university.' The value of some of the admirable essays is at times compromised. Divay's speculative use of 'likely' and 'must have' undermines the authority of her arguments, as do the inconsistent reporting of the title of her 1994 Arachne article and her suggestion that Grove lived on a Simcoe 'estate.' Stovel reports the date of the Calgary conference on the Canadian novel as 1982 rather than 1978, contradicts herself in dating the writing of Laurence's Long Drums and Cannons to both the 1950s and 1960s, misreports Laurence's embarking for England in 1962 with the manuscript of The Stone Angel, and overlooks some of Laurence's strongest statements about freedom versus survival as her central theme. Tulloch claims that Diefenbaker was born in Saskatchewan rather than Ontario, mistakenly describes the musician in Ross's 'Cornet at Night' as a teenaged boy, overlooks the significance of Ross's rewriting of this story for The Lamp at Noon, and fails to illustrate convincingly her claim that the narrator's father also has latent desires. Indeed, Sinclair Ross's work is not well served in this collection, especially in Diane Beattie's unreliable and often unsubstantiated reading of As for Me and My House. She depends far too much on 'surely,' 'perhaps,' 'possibly,' and 'would have been' to make her points, misreports the date of the novel's first diary entry, and falsely claims that Philip builds the lean-to on the house. She does not offer convincing evidence that Philip almost comes out as a gay man to the church board, that Judith is an object of desire for Mrs Bentley's bisexual/ sadistic/megalomaniacal character, or that Philip is a...