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The plain truth: A Saskatchewan writer unearths the ruthless, bloody history behind the romanticism of Prairie settlement

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When Candace Savage and her husband buy a house in the romantic little town of Eastend, she has no idea what she's about to discover. While living in the boyhood home of American writer Wallace Stegner, who detailed his Saskatchewan childhood in his acclaimed memoir, Wolf Willow, at first she enjoys road trips in the desolate backcountry of Cypress Hills, animal-watching along the windswept plains and day trips to view centuries-old dinosaur skeletons and fossils. But as she explores further, she finds herself deep in the dark, cruel history of her beloved Prairie landscape. As a descendant of a long line of Prairie homesteaders, the secrets she uncovers force her to reassess everything she thought she knew about this remarkable place.

 

A Geography of Blood offers a shocking version of plains history and an unforgettable portrait of the Cypress Hills, a holy place for First Nations people. It tells the truth about the deliberate extermination of the buffalo and the greedy, malicious tactics Sir John A. MacDonald's government ruthlessly applied to Canada's aboriginal people, providing a historical context for many unresolved conflicts even today.

 

What we noticed first was the silence. If you stood on the curb in front of the Stegner House and listened, you could feel your ears reaching for sounds, as if they were trying to stand up as sharp as a coyote's.

Now and then, a vehicle whispered along the main drag a couple of blocks to the south, and every hour or so a truck hauling a load of huge round bales growled down a gravel road on the western edge of town.

But apart from these brief transgressions, the houses on both sides of the street seemed to lie in a trance, as if even the ticking of their clocks had been silenced.

In the kitchen of the Stegner House, the prevailing quiet was broken by an aged refrigerator, which wheezed asthmatically in the performance of its duties. When the wind blew, the storm windows rattled in sympathy and the rooms filled with the rhythmic, wavelike whooshing of the spruce trees in the front yard.

But inexplicably, these sounds served only to signal an eerie absence of noise. The black rotary telephone beside the dining-room table did not ring. Although our hosts had foreseen all of our basic needs and comforts, they had neglected to provide a radio, and the antiquated TV in the living room, equipped with rabbit ears, could emit little more than hiss.

(Our attempts to watch the Canadians beat the U.S. 3-2 in the gold-medal game of the Women's World Hockey Championship came to naught because the action appeared to be taking place in a blizzard.)

With the van consigned to dry dock for as-yet-undetermined repairs, we did not even have the benefit of the radio there. We had been cast adrift, with nothing to guide us but our thoughts and our unaided senses.

Morning after morning, Keith woke to report strange dreams, many of them about his father, who had died, in England, six months earlier. "I've never dreamed anything like that," he'd say, and then tell me how, in his sleep, he had looked at himself in a mirror and seen the face of his dead father looking back. Do you think it's this stillness? we asked each other. Do you think that staying busy, in constant commotion, is a way to keep from knowing what is really happening to us? Is that why people talk about "profound" silence?

For my part, I slept dreamless, as if I were made out of wood, as if I were sleeping the rooted sleep of a poplar.

That was another thing: the dark. On clear, moonless nights just at bedtime, we'd often stand, shivering, in the backyard and gaze out into the universe. The darkness was as black as water, and you sensed that if you lost your footing, you might fall helpless into its depths. And the stars; stars beyond counting, streaming across the sky, all trillions of miles distant across an ether of space and time.

"Stay put," the voice had told us. "Pay attention to where you are." We were in the yard of the Stegner House, on Tamarack Street, in the town of Eastend, Sask., at the foot of the Cypress Hills. We were whirling through space on the skin of a living planet.

 

-- -- --

 

That evening, I stood in the yard of the Stegner House, under a sky quilted with clouds, and listened to the yip-yip-yipping of coyotes on the hills above town.

Tell the truth. Although I had been brought up on the Creation Story of Prairie settlement and, as the past few days had proven, was still susceptible to its charms, I was no longer a true believer. It was one thing to sit in Jack's Café, blissed out on maple syrup, and enjoy a confident portrayal of the pageant of progress.

But did I really believe that a Prairie landscape dominated by pump jacks and industrial agriculture is, in any ultimate sense, an improvement on the now-shattered buffalo ecosystem?

And while it had been entertaining and, yes, even inspiring, to sit with the local history and recall my debt to the people who had planted me here, did I really believe that the West had been won while whistling a happy tune?

If I interrogated my memory, I could hear my mother's voice turn brittle when she spoke, as she rarely did, of the beatings her own father had inflicted on his sons, but not his daughters, violent explosions of rage that seemed out of proportion to youthful misdeeds.

 

Frustration refracted into cruelty. The Stegners, with their two sons, had been able to pull up stakes and leave when things turned sour on them; the Humphreys, with a brood of 10, did not have that option. They had toughed it out on a bankrupt farm, too proud to accept relief -- but not too proud, in my mother's nightmare recollection, to attempt to abandon a promising little girl, her own small self, to the care of a more prosperous neighbour.

When she told me this story 80 years later, her voice still cracked with grief.

Perhaps I had been avoiding Wolf Willow out of mere cowardice, a reluctance to face home truths when they were offered.

The night wind had an icy bite and it chased me back indoors, past Keith dozing on the couch and up the narrow stairway to the back room, where young Wally and his brother had once slept. With the spectre of their bewildered grandmother in the hallway behind me, I gazed out the window into the heavy dark and recalled how my own sense of western history had, over the years, gradually come unmoored.

I remembered sitting in Sunday school one morning (in the minister's study at First United Church in Vermilion, Alberta, to be precise) and suddenly seeing with irrevocable clarity that the assurances of Christianity, and of a divinely ordained plan, were an illusion. This revelation left me with little to show for my religious upbringing except the Golden Rule and a slightly idiosyncratic version of a favourite children's hymn:

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wild and wonderful...

I thought of the day, a few years later, when I looked down on the prairie from an airplane and for the first time saw how the curvilinear contours of hill and valley, with their scribbled water courses, seemed to struggle against the straight lines of the surveyors' rule. This wild and wonderful land was caught tight in a net, and my people, and others like them, had ensnared it.

 

And there was something else. On the homestead in the Peace River Country where my dad grew up, there was, and is, a piece of land known affectionately within the family as the Indian Quarter. Closer to a half-section in reality, it consists of a cultivated field bisected by a track that leads to a brushy ridge. Past this horizon, the land folds downward, through a tangle of aspen and spruce, to the wild currents of the Beaverlodge River.

On the grassy ledge beside the water, the whole family often gathered together when I was a kid -- a happy tribe of aunts, uncles and cousins -- to picnic and swim in summer or, when the ice was clear, to skate and drink hot chocolate on winter afternoons.

According to the family story, this spot had once been a favourite stopping place of the local Beaver Indians, who had continued to camp here until about 1910, when my pioneering great-grandfather and his sons had purchased the property from them.

Like many family legends, this account is at least partly false, since treaty Indians at that time were not permitted to hold individual title to land. But whatever the truth of the matter, I was fascinated by the thought of those disappeared encampments and of the people who had lived in them. Now we were here, enjoying ourselves, and they had vanished.

I'm not sure how old I was when this discomfort first coalesced into an image, though I may have been eight or nine. In my mind's eye, I saw my late grandmother (think Queen Victoria in a housedress) crossing the field on the dirt track that led toward the riverbank.

Opposite her, at a distance, a young Beaver woman (an Indian princess in buckskin) stood at the edge of the brush, as if she had just come up the hill from the water. The two women faced each other across the clearing, as diffident as stones.

No matter how often I conjured them there, they never approached each other, and neither uttered a word. The silence that lay between them seemed impenetrable.

 

Excerpt from the book A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape, é 2012 by Candace Savage, published by Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. A Geography of Blood will be in bookstores Sept. 1.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J12

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