- One West, Two Myths: A Comparative Reader
One West is composed of eight papers, each by a different author and each focused on matters relating to the forty-ninth parallel, that 'imaginary line' separating the American Great Plains from the Canadian Prairies. Despite the promise of the general title, one's overall impression is that there have been and are, not 'One West' and 'Two Myths,' but several distinct western regions and peoples, with varied histories and myths. In general, [End Page 213] moreover, the term 'imaginary' is used slightly, being given no significance beyond the conventional notion of 'unreal,' as this can refer to something fabricated by humans and not given by nature.
With marked exceptions, a silent continentalism informs the writing. Frequently, one is given a sense that the east-west axis of the United States and Canada (emphasized by the 'imaginary' border, and by railroads and highways), is anomalous or perverse, denying the continent its proper fulfilment as a geographical whole and Canada its true nature. Because rivers and mountain ranges run north and south and because the different areas recognized by the various First Nations as their own were defined before and by quite different forces from those that led to the drawing of the forty-ninth parallel, a primal unity would seem to be denied.
'Against the Grain' is the title of a solid plain piece by Elliott West in which that view of matters is explicit. Perhaps this is merely indicative of an unselfconscious national identification by American scholars (of the eight only Friesen and McManus are identified with Canadian institutions), a national perspective which is innocently betrayed by West when he writes of the 'unusual' movement of the Algonkin 'from right to left' rather than, as he could have said, 'from east to west.' (In another paper, Donald Worster easily refers to Canada as 'up there.') The phrasing is not neutrally academic, as it might seem, for it excises any proper Canadian presence. In this context the forty-ninth parallel can assume an 'unnecessary' character and not simply an 'imaginary' one. The legitimacy of differences in political and cultural claims and traditions that made for the line's creation go unseen.
This said, One West nonetheless remains a generally useful introduction to some of the issues involved. Its target readership is unclear, perhaps, insofar as C.L. Higham's overriding editorial concern in her introduction seems to be narrowly professional, namely to demonstrate the viability of the comparative approach and the wealth of research opportunities made available by it. This will be directed to other historians, actual or potential. But comparative work is old news now, surely, and, moreover, the writing contains little that is new except to an undergraduate. (Regarding undergraduate needs, where was the Calgary editor when Higham was allowed to confuse 'infer' and 'imply' or LaDow to write of Riel's being 'hung' rather than 'hanged'?)
Granting the general introductory usefulness of the materials offered here, the information to be gleaned by the novice from One West is, nonetheless, occasionally incomplete or misleading. Donald Worster, for example, is at pains to relate and reduce the emergence of national and territorial development in North America, as an idea, to the emergence of biological science and Marxist historical theory, with no apparent recognition of the larger place of 'development' or 'progress' in Western thought, from Mill, Comte, and Saint-Simon, back through eighteenth-century [End Page 214] debates regarding man's perfectibility, to Plato. A serious omission, too, in a book of this nature is of any history focused on the issues involved in drawing the actual line. At the beginning of her intelligent and provocative piece on the use of 'Space, Race, and Gender' in transforming 'Blackfoot Country into the Alberta-Montana Borderlands,' Sheila McManus mentions the date of 1818, but no larger discussion of British and American negotiations is to be found in the book, making the forty-ninth parallel 'imaginary' indeed.
With the exception of pieces such as that by McManus, which...