Synopses & Reviews
A Discovery of Strangers
tells of the meeting of two civilizations - the first encounter of the nomadic Dene people with Europeans - in an imaginative reconstruction of John Franklins first map-making expedition in 1819—21 in what is now the Northwest Territories. At the heart of the novel is a love story between twenty-two-year-old midshipman Robert Hood, the Franklin expeditions artist, and a fifteen-year-old Yellowknife girl known to the British as Greenstockings. A national bestseller, published also in Germany and China, Wiebes first novel in eleven years and his twelfth work of fiction won him his second Governor Generals Award for Fiction at the age of sixty, over strong competition from Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.
It is a story of love, murder, greed and passion in an unforgiving Arctic landscape. French-Canadian voyageurs paddle the small British expedition into the land of the Yellowknives to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. While this trip would not prove as disastrous as Franklins third expedition, nevertheless more than half his men did not survive the harsh conditions. The long winter stopover allows for interchange between the cultures. When the son of a Lancashire clergyman and the daughter of a native elder fall in love, they devise a language of their own to cross their wordless divide. Hood will not survive to see the birth of his daughter, perishing in 1821 in an attempt to reach Greenstockingss band 450 kilometres south. Nor will the Yellowknives survive much longer: within twenty years, they will be all but wiped out by a smallpox epidemic brought by the white men.
The novel is the work of a poetic mind, written in several voices: of the British explorers, of the Tetsotine people - named Yellowknife by the strangers - and, most unexpected of all, of the animals that live on the Barrenlands. Wiebe climbs inside the characters, bringing them and the North to life. “Most Canadians have never seen that landscape. Yet I see it as being at the centre of our national psyche. Thats the roots of our world, right there.” He began work on the novel in earnest following a canoe trip between the Coppermine River and the site of Fort Enterprize in 1988, when he was first enraptured by the landscape. The novel contains vivid images, such as stunning descriptions of caribou bursting through snow. In calling the Arctic ‘A Land Beyond Words, Wiebe admits how difficult it was to do it justice. “I think theres always a total contradiction in even trying to do such a novel,” he said in an interview, “and yet its the very contradiction out of which any kind of artistic struggle must come. Its not even worth trying if it doesnt seem impossible.”
In researching historical sources, Wiebe found letters, earlier accounts of the region such as those of Samuel Hearne, as well as oral stories and mythology told by the Dene elders. “I take the facts, as many of the facts as history gives me, and I use them to tell the story that I believe these facts tell us beyond themselves . . . . How did it happen, why did it happen, what was going on inside peoples heads while it was happening, why did they do what they did?” Franklins book on the first expedition contained a small paragraph mentioning Greenstockings as the most beautiful girl of the Dene, and a sketch of her and her father Keskarrah drawn by Robert Hood. Wiebe also discovered a claim made years later by one of the members of the team that Greenstockings had had a child by Hood (these facts are related in his book Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic). From these details, he created a powerful story of their union. “Its imagination all right, but it has to be an informed imagination.”
The Kingston Whig-Standard claimed the book “is to the North what Big Bear was to the West - an imaginative, and possibly definitive, evocation of a crucial time, place and situation.” It is part of a body of significant historical fiction by Wiebe, including The Scorched-Wood People, which tells the story of Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. The third Franklin expedition has been the subject of works by Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler, as well as accounts such as Frozen in Time by John Geiger and forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie. A Discovery of Strangers explores the expedition Wiebe found more fascinating: that of first contact between the Europeans and the Natives, which was so damaging to the Native people in the end, and so essential to the survival of the Europeans. In his acceptance speech for the Governor Generals Award, Wiebe said: “We know too little about our selves. In this enormous, beautiful land we inhabit, we seem to have no eyes to see, no ears to hear, the stories that are everywhere about us and clamouring to be told . . . . Only the stories we tell each other can create us as a true Canadian people.”
About the Author
Rudy Wiebe was born on October 4, 1934, in an isolated farm community of about 250 people in a rugged but lovely region near Fairholme, Saskatchewan. His parents had escaped Soviet Russia with five children in 1930, part of the last generation of homesteaders to settle the Canadian West, and part of a Mennonite history of displacement and emigration through Europe and Asia to North and South America since the seventeenth century. In 1947 his family gave up their bush farm and moved to Coaldale, Alberta, a town east of Lethbridge peopled largely by Ukrainians, Mennonites, Mormons, and Central Europeans, as well as Japanese, who ended up there during WW II.
Rudy Wiebe read as much as possible from an early age; his first reading materials were the Bible, the Eaton's catalogue and the Free Press Weekly Prairie Farmer; he also recalls listening to his parents stories of Russia. By Grade 4, he had read through the two shelves of books available in the one-room schoolhouse. Growing up, he enjoyed Les Miserables, Toilers of the Sea, David Copperfield, Tom Brown's Schooldays, Greek myths and Norse legends. Later an admirer of Faulkner, Márquez, Borges and Tolstoy, Wiebe has always held to the fundamentals of plot, character and, above all, story. He believes stories should begin in the specific and local but expand into “a human truth larger than any individual.”
Wiebe won his first prize for fiction while studying literature at the University of Alberta, where he enrolled in a writing class and began producing poems, plays and stories. His winning story in a Canada-wide contest recounted a young boys response to the death of his sister - based on Wiebes own experience - and was published in the magazine Liberty in 1956. After earning his B.A., Wiebe left for the ancient University of Tübingen in West Germany on a Rotary Fellowship to study literature and theology, an experience that increased his respect for older and richer communities. Tena Isaak of British Columbia joined him there and they were married. The couple travelled in England, Austria, Switzerland and Italy before returning to Edmonton, where Wiebe completed his M.A. in creative writing. His thesis grew into his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many.
In 1962 Wiebe earned a Bachelor of Theology degree from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College; he considered becoming a minister. He was editor of Winnipegs Mennonite Brethren Herald when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published. Many conservative ministers and Mennonites in small towns objected to the novel's frank and at times unflattering portrait of community life, and there was considerable opposition to the book. “I wasn't exactly sacked as editor . . . but the committee came to me and said ‘Ahem. I resigned.” The strength of this reaction made him think hard about the power of the written word, and reinforced his sense of wanting to be a writer.
Wiebe then was invited to teach at a Mennonite college in Goshen, an agricultural town in Indiana with a large Mennonite and Amish population, where he would be Assistant Professor of English from 1963 to 1967. Goshen College was a lively and stimulating intellectual community where Wiebe committed himself to writing, study, teaching and travel. “I encountered men and women of real perception . . . really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus's followers and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had brought that kind of understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian. The best thing that ever happened to me was the meetings we had every two or three weeks in one home or another - seven or eight of us, a psychiatrist, a couple of theologians, a couple of literary people. There were the best theologians there, I think, the Mennonite Church has ever had.”
Wiebe published his second novel, First and Vital Candle, and began to explore the western United States and the Mennonite settlements in Paraguay. He returned to Edmonton as a professor in creative writing and English at the University of Alberta, and immersed himself in Canadian literature. He wrote reviews, essays and articles, edited anthologies and was soon established as a major figure in Canadian letters. In 1973, his novel The Temptations of Big Bear won a Governor General's Award. Since then he has continued to win the highest praise for his books of fiction and non-fiction. He has written numerous film and television scripts, lectured internationally from Denmark to India, and given readings from Adelaide to Puerto Rico to Helsinki and Igloolik. For thirty years he taught literature and creative writing at colleges and universities in Canada, the United States and Germany. Now retired from teaching, his former students include such accomplished writers as Myrna Kostash, Aritha van Herk, Thomas Wharton and Katherine Govier.
Wiebe was called the first major Mennonite writer to place his communitys experience in a broader framework. Mennonites assert the fundamental authority of Scripture, especially the New Testament, as a practical guide to life. But while Wiebe imbues his work with a deep moral seriousness, his focus has always been on narrative. “I never consciously think of writing a so-called Christian novel. I dont think Albert Camus ever thought of writing an existentialist novel, either. I think of getting at, of building, a story.” As a prairie writer, he has often concerned himself with Native stories, feeling place of birth to be more important than blood ancestry. “Those Mennonite villages in Russia are my heritage, but not my world. The world I feel and sense in my bones is the bush of northern Saskatchewan, of prairie Canada.” Native spirituality, with its vital links to the physical world, has always attracted him. But his fiction manages to transcend nationality and locale to explore the struggles of communities and individuals; his books and stories have been translated into nine European languages, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Hindi.
Whatever Wiebes focus in a given work, he has always chosen ambitious themes, and his work rewards readers with an intensity seldom rivalled. He is a voice of Canadian fiction that cannot be ignored, and whose work promises to endure.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. How did I become a writer:
That's easy: by writing for many hours every day for years, and rewriting, as it often seemed, without end. It helps to be obsessive. The more complicated question is a blend of that “how,” and why. Let me try to be simplistically organized about it:
i) Growing up as the youngest child on a homestead bush farm in Saskatchewan, being mostly alone and reading anything I could find.
ii) Speaking three closely related but distinct languages (Russian Mennonite Low German at home, High German in church, and English when I started Grade 1) and hearing the poems and stories of the Bible read, preached and sung in four-part harmony every Sunday.
iii) Being able to continue school (rather than leave in order to earn my keep as my siblings did by their middle teens) and having outstanding teachers – both in grade school and university– who taught me how to read as a writer and encouraged me to try to write myself.
iv) Studying in Germany and travelling for a year in Europe during the late ’50s, where I began to recognize the absolute uniqueness of the northern prairie Canadian world I had been born into, and the Mennonite heritage I had – but recognized also the profound, common humanity that shapes us all, despite the horrible wars (World War II, the Korean War) we had just experienced, whose destruction was then still visible everywhere, especially in the consciousness of people.
2. My favourite interview story.
The question I most indelibly remember happened live on radio with Peter Gzowski in November 1973. We were talking on This Country in the Morning about The Temptations of Big Bear, then just published, and he said to me, “If Big Bear were alive today, what would you ask him?”
Our heads were bent close together, across a small table in a closet-sized room in the old CBC building on Jarvis Street, facing each other through a Canada-wide microphone. All I could say was, “I'd ask him, ‘How can I live a good life?’”
3. Questions never asked, but wished for:
My first novel was published in 1962, and I suppose over the decades I've been asked almost every conceivable question. Sometimes, if at the moment I don't feel comfortable with what is asked – the personality/manner/interest of the interviewer often make a question palatable or not – I respond by turning the question in the direction I prefer, and answer that. This happens particularly when the interviewer barely knows what the dust jacket of the book explains.
In the ’60s and ’70s interviewers rarely asked questions about personal beliefs or religious concepts – sex was much more likely to bob up – but that has changed in the past decades and clearly, with the kind of novels I write, that is all for the better. Lately, pop psychology has given us whole series of canned, supposedly enlightening, questions like “What is your favourite colour?” or “Do you prefer oysters or shrimp?” or (if you're a man) “In the toilet, do you sit or stand when you urinate?” I find such questions merely silly, though useful if you can turn them into a laugh.
4. Has a review or profile ever changed my perspective on my work?
I think every reader reads his or her own particular novel; certain basics of the story are given, of course, but the feelings and experiences these basics create are – and rightly so – very individual. That is why I read reviews and articles and theses about my novels: I want to know how careful, literate readers experience them. I find it vaguely grotesque for a writer to assert that he or she never reads reviews – if you care nothing about how your book is read, why not shove the manuscript away under your bed? Why inflict it on the world by publishing it? Just for the money it will earn you? In an important sense, to publish (that is, to make public) a novel means you feel it is not complete without a reader; for me that means I should respect readers enough to listen to them when they talk back to me about what they find I have written.
5. Which authors have been most influential for my writing?
Perhaps scholars who have read everything I have published (that would be a job!) could answer this more accurately than I. To my way of thinking, in literary terms they would be Leo Tolstoy in the nineteenth century and William Faulkner in the twentieth. Regarding the Anabaptist/Mennonite understanding of the teachings of Jesus, particularly their pacifism, it would be the philosopher/theologian John Howard Yoder, 1927—1997.
6. If I wasn't writing, what would I want to do for a living?
Sing. Be an opera tenor, living and dying for undying love with endless magnificent sopranos in front of thousands of dressed-up people. In 1962, on the basis of a trial tape, I was invited to study voice at one of the best music academies in Germany; however, the publication of my first novel that fall lured me in a different direction. Deo gratias.
7. If I could have written one book in history, what book would it be?
This, like # 10, sounds like a canned question (cf. # 7). In the continuing spirit of serious silliness, I say I would want to have written the Bible– an inexhaustible library of the human experience.