Prairie Books Now Interview - Reading the River
Reviewed by: Shirley Byers
Down by the riverside
Myrna Kostash's latest book, Reading the River: A Traveller's Companion to the North Saskatchewan River, is a rich anthology of history and literature. Kostash has spent most of her life on the river's banks, and she chronicles each town and city along the river's long, winding path from its source near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to The Pas, Manitoba.
"My research associate, Duane Burton, and I set out to gather together as wide a variety of stories and tales and anecdotes and reports as we could find that had something to say about the writer's or poet's observations or feelings about the Saskatchewan River, from First Nations legends ("orature") to twenty-first-century poetry" says Kostash.
Kostash used 14 different types of sources, ranging from the obvious, such as William Francis Butler's Great Lone Land, to books in used book stores to recommendations from friends to unsolicited material to sending out general solicitations.
"I walkedthe banks of the river at every place I mentioned up to The Forks (near Fort à la Corne, Saskatchewan)," she says, "gettig to know the river in terms of how it winds around, takes bends, disappears with shallow banks, re-emerges with deep banks. Finding bits and pieces of old trading posts. Trying to find the places where the ferry used to cross. Realizing that the river I'm looking at doesn't behave the same way [as it used to]."
Of all the stories she collected, a few stand out. She loved Agnes Laut, one of the river's first tourists around 1900, who wrote a "very, very long magazine article" based on a trip she took along the North Saskatchewan. Kostash relishes Laut's sense of astonishment about everything she saw en route.
"She saw a Galician (Ukrainian) woman doing her laundry on the riverside and she thought that was so exotic. That could have been my baba," Kostash says with a chuckle. "There was nothing exotic about it! It's a matter of necessity when you're poor."
On a more contemporary level, she was moved by the journalist John Stackhouse's story of revisiting The Pas, a Manitoba community that had been torn apart by the murder of an Aboriginal woman, Helen Betty Osborne, in 1971. The four white youths responsible for her death were not brought to justice for another sixteen years.
At a hockey game a generation later, Stackhouse watches the community join together cheering their team, comprised of Aborignal and non-Aboriginal players, and sees signs that healing has begun.
Kostash says that she sees her book as very hands-on, user friendly, not a literary artifact. "I always thought of it as a book people would throw in the car as they took a trip to say, Rocky Mountain House, that they'd stand there and read the book and have the range of experience from the very first traveller to a contemporary poet."
Writing a work such as this is like pregnancy and childbirth, she says - when the birth/book happens you forget what it was like. "I would like to do it again, but with a shorter river. I'm looking at the Red River."