restricted access Storied Landscapes: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Canadian Prairies (review)
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Reviewed by
Frances Swyripa, Storied Landscapes: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press 2010)

Storied Landscapes is an elegantly written, intricately researched study about identity and belonging among major late 19th- and early 20th-century European immigrant groups, and their descendants’ “quest for roots” (24 4), in the so-called Canadian West. This book is inspired by the author’s rural Western Canadian childhood, during which she developed a keen curiosity about her “own backyard.” (4) Her study is based on the “return” to her rural roots, where she conducted extensive fieldwork in selected localities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Historian Frances Swyripa, who has written extensively on immigration and ethnicity in Canada, here offers a comprehensive, [End Page 270] comparative introduction to the settlement experiences and prairie heritages of Ukrainians, Mennonites, Icelanders and Doukhobors, as well as Germans, Romanians, Jews, Poles, Swedes, Danes, Finns and Norwegians. Specifically, Swyripa’s study contributes a fresh assessment of the construction of regional and national consciousness by analyzing the complex interplay of immigration, rural settlement, heritage, religious faith, material and emotional ties to place, community growth, and collective memory.

One of the book’s major strengths is its nuanced engagement with historian Gerald Friesen, who has famously asserted that the idea of a distinct Canadian West may no longer be a useful tool for analyzing contemporary Canadian identities, politics or culture. Swyripa’s book counters that the traditional prairie West remains a vital framework for understanding the evolution and expression of ethno-religious identity among pioneers and their descendants in the area. With its thorough examination of the inextri-cable roles of religion and ethnicity in processes of migration and settlement, family, home, community, and institution building, Swyripa’s study raises important questions about the centrality of two key features of European immigrant life in the shaping of a distinctive, collective prairie and Canadian Western identity.

The author opens her study by relaying the memory of a formative childhood pastime – one quite feasibly held in common with all sorts of longtime Canadian prairie dwellers – involving lengthy, countryside drives along dirt roads on Sunday afternoons, interspersed with brief stops at country stores for ice cream, visits to old churches and cemeteries, walks through expansive grain fields, and curiously timid explorations of old, abandoned houses and barns. Swyripa attests that on such drives the historical existence and lasting visual impression of diverse ethnic and religious groups (by way of distinct place names and building structures) on the countryside became especially clear. The vastness and strangeness of the land somehow became familiar and comforting and fostered a sense of rootedness, of returning to one’s own backyard.

Notwithstanding the diversit y of people who have historically made their home in this prairie place, and despite the ever-increasing ability of the many urban descendants of the European settler generation to become lost in this rural landscape, a sentimental attachment to the land remains prominent in the ethno-religious identity of immigrants and their descendants to the area. This sense of belonging, at once real and imagined, seems to transcend group boundaries and time, informing the regional self-identity of groups and individuals in the prairie provinces. The remainder of Swyripa’s study traces the beginnings and evolution of this persistent and collective sense of rootedness and the meaning of “place” through the lens of pioneer ethno-religiosity. She ends by commenting on the relationship between this local, “physical and emotional intimacy with the land” (74) and the formation of identity among immigrants in the larger Canadian nation state.

Chapter 1 lays the foundation for the study by providing an overview of the prairie homesteading experience during the formative years of large-scale European immigration to western Canada at the turn of the 20th century. Swyripa demonstrates not only that the Canadian West has long been characterized by multiculturalism, but also that the groups of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds shared experiences of migration and settlement and thus came to imagine themselves as part of [End Page 271] one, broader community, with a common heritage and future goal. The second and third chapters consider the multiplicity of...