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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Would You Believe Saskatchewan?

Not in the picture above, no. That’s Northport on Saturday, with the fourth annual Leelanau UnCaged street festival blessed with perfect weather. Early on Saturday as booths and displays and stages for bands were being assembled, the town had the happy atmosphere of a county fair but dedicated to arts and music rather than livestock and home canning. So my photographs in today’s post have nothing to do with what follows and everything to do with Northport on Saturday morning. These are the photos I have – what else can I say?

We did not take to the road for a third September road trip and would have been very unlikely [no one caught this typo earlier?!] to go as far as the western Great Plains if we had. Michigan was our vacation ground this year, in the two short forays (#1 begins here and continues in subsequent posts; #2 here) we made away from home. So what’s with Saskatchewan?

Well, you know I am an avid armchair traveler, so you might guess a book was my passport to Canada, and you’d be right. Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, part-memoir, part-history, with a couple chapters of gripping fiction thrown in, kept me spellbound in the wee, sleepless hours of darkness and into the morning light. One of the big problems with this book – well, the first, often-noted problem is classifying it and deciding where to shelve it in a library or bookstore, but the second problem, the one that stumps me now, as I try to decide what to say about it and how to choose a few representative quotes, is that just about every sentence and every paragraph of the book begs to be quoted. What a magnificent writer! So maybe I should just open at random and see what I find.

Here, page 28 –
In general, the assumption of all of us, child or adult, was that this was a new country and that a new country had no history. History was something that applied to other places. It would not have seemed reasonable to any of the town’s founders to consider any of their activities history, or to look back very far in search of what had preceded them. Time reached back only a few years, to the pre-homestead period of the big cattle ranches.
What an innocent, thoughtless time, when people were not focused on their own importance! Not like the present day, with its constant personal documenting of every minute! But in retrospect Stegner found the innocence of his childhood years irritating.
The very richness of that past as I discover it now makes me irritable to have been cheated of it then. I wish I could have known it early, that it could have come to me with the smell of life about it instead of the smell of books....
I’m sure Stegner loves “the smell of books.” What he wishes was that he could have known the colorful local past of that ground he walked as a child at the same time he was discovering the world for the first time. And he does not regret everything about his boyhood innocence.
I have sat many times all alone just inside the edge of one of the aspen coulees that tongued down from the North Bench, and heard the soft puffs of summer wind rattle the leaves, and felt how sun and shadow scattered and returned like disturbed sage-hen chicks; and in some way of ignorance and innocence and pure perception I have bent my entire consciousness upon white anemones among the white aspen boles. They were rare and beautiful to me, and they grew only there in the dapple of the woods—flowers whose name I did not know and could not possibly have found out and would not have asked, because I thought that only I knew about them and I wanted no one else to know.

We the readers have all the luck. We have at one and the same time what Stegner wishes he had had together. We have his childhood memories, the sights and sounds and smells of the frontier, descriptions of boyhood scenes and pasttimes, along with a succession of earlier ways of life and waves of inhabitants to the region that the author only collected long afterward, as an adult. Surveying the scope of Saskatchewan’s border history and situating within it the little town he knew, Stegner comes to certain conclusions. He would never want to return to that boyhood home but values having grown up there and sees in the pioneer dream, a few years of success, and the dream’s ultimate disappointment not only his family’s story but a larger arc of North American cultural history.
One who has lived the dream, the temporary fulfillment, and the disappointment has had the full course. He may lack a thousand things that the rest of the world takes for granted, and because his experience is belated he may feel like an anachronism all his life. But he will know one thing about what it means to be an American, because he has known the raw continent, and not as tourist but as denizen. Some of the beauty, the innocence, and the callousness must stick to him, and some of the regret.
I am stopping my quote halfway through a paragraph, imposing restraint on my impulse. Are you interested in small town life? In the history of the North American continent? In the pioneer experience? In writing of the highest caliber? If so, you cannot do better than to read Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. The lines of this book will haunt you even as you read them for the first time.

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