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Promise and pain on the Prairie

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In September 2000, the naturalist Candace Savage and her companion Keith Bell took "a nothing little ramble to nowheresville" that included a stop-over in Eastend, Sask. -- "a speck in the Big Empty of the North American outback."

They ended up buying a house and settling in. A Geography of Blood is an alert and evocative account of her experiences there, her encounters with the landscape, the animals and the plants, and her discoveries about the dark history of the place.

If you know your Canadian geography, bloody or not, you'll know that Eastend is located in southwest Saskatchewan, near the Cypress Hills, in the Palliser Triangle.

More important, it was the boyhood home of Wallace Stegner, whose book Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier is a seemingly definitive study of the area. It's on many people's lists of great reads.

Writing about a small, out-of-the-way place that has already been covered by someone with Stegner's lofty reputation is quite a daring challenge. But Savage has the credentials. She is a multi-award-winning author with over two dozen books to her credit.

Her nature books are probably the best known: on bees, wolves, grizzlies, wild cats, peregrine falcons, eagles and crows. A Geography of Blood builds on Prairie: A Natural History, a landmark study that has just been re-issued, and is her eighth cultural history book, adding to studies of witches, beauty queens, cowgirls and famous prairie women. She has also published six children's books.

Savage sets out to honour the land and its stories, and while she is not as arty as Stegner, her descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants are full of felicitous phrases and a palpable sense of her passion for the natural environment.

Her evocation of a day at Fort Walsh is an excellent example: "With every breath, we draw in the winy scent of wild roses, the smoky sweetness of sage, the sheen and shimmer of a perfect summer day."

The spell that this land casts and has cast for thousands of years on its original inhabitants she captures in her final rapturous tribute: "Surely no one could lie on the rim of the Frenchman Valley with a night chill in the air and gaze out into that great swirling river of stars without finding him- or herself a fallen star in the grass, alight with satisfaction and wonderment."

Savage is not merely content, however, to update Stegner's impressions of the land a century later. Her book is, in fact, a rebuttal of his creation story about the glorious founding of the Canadian west.

Although she admits that Stegner was "a brilliant man, a scholar with the soul of a poet, [and] a master storyteller," she feels that he was "hornswoggled by the march-of-progress myth."

Stegner "failed to detect the racist underpinning of the Great Plains adventure -- the confident assertion of white European superiority and the unquestioned value of European 'civilization.'"

What her meticulous research comes to discover is "the nightmare side of the national dream."

In their treatment of First Nations people, the Canadian government and its agents were not as directly brutal as their American counterparts, but they were just as effective in removing obstacles for the "incomers" -- the white immigrants streaming in from the east and south.

Deceit, betrayal and cold-hearted indifference to the starvation and deadly suffering they caused were their weapons.

With the help of some of the survivors, Savage weaves a gripping narration of regret and shame. Hers is a bittersweet tale of the land and its histories.

Savage cites Henry David Thoreau on the first page of this book, and Walden is certainly the most famous precedent for this kind of close, ruminating examination of a natural space.

With the success of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, this sub-genre seems to have captured readers' fancies -- especially books about Saskatchewan.

While not as ecologically concerned as Trevor Herriot's River in a Dry Land, nor as meditative as Lorna Crozier's Small Beneath the Sky, nor as spiritual as Sharon Butala's The Perfection of the Morning, nor as personal as Warren Cariou's Lake of the Prairies, A Geography of Blood is a most worthy addition to their ranks.

It's a book with perfect pitch, combining careful observation, history and imagination into a wonderfully modulated account of life in a harsh corner of our near neighbour.

Gene Walz, a retired film professor at the University of Manitoba, has fond memories of the landscape and the birds of southern Saskatchewan.


A Geography of Blood

Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape

By Candace Savage

Greystone Books, 224 pages, $27

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J10

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