Canadian Literature Review - Reading the River

Reviewed by: Jenny Kerber

The recent centennials of Saskatchewan and Alberta have been marked by the publication of numerous books celebrating the historical, cultural, and geographical diversity of the prairies. What better way to get to know the diversity of a given terrain than by following the course of one of its many life-sustaining arteries? These books by Norman Henderson and Myrna Kostash invite readers on two very different kinds of river journeys across the prairie provinces, but share a common concern for the value of natural continuity in the midst of the increasing fragmentation resulting from the vagaries of politics and the pressures of human activity.

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While Henderson's book clearly situates itself in a European (and overwhelmingly male) prairie travel narrative tradition, Myrna Kostash's Reading the River pays much greater attention to the prairie river as a polyvoal site of cultural and historical experience. The aim of the book, according to Kostash and her research associate Duane Burton, is "to gather together as wide a variety of stories and tales and anecdotes and reports as we could find that had somethin to say about the writer's or the poet's observations or feelings about the Saskatchewan River." As an anthology, the volume succeeds admirably, a creation story, to accounts of the river by early women travellers, to depictions of urban riverscapes by contemporary poets. True to its subtitle as a "traveller's companion," the book's chapters may be read at random, and Kostash's judicious arrangements of narrative responses to the river result in some refreshing juxtapositions: for example, a narrative about the explorer David Thompson and the contemporary adventurers who trace his path upriver from the parkland into the Rockies is followed by an account by Edmonton drag queen and former resident of Rocky Mountain House Darrin Hagen, who envisions the river as a means of queer travel downstream to the city. The text is also accompanied by a rich archive of photographs, as a useful map that traces the river's path.

If these two books have a shared weakness, it lies in their textual apparatuses. Both lack indexes, thereby hindering each work's usefulness as a reference. Similarly, no page citations are given for the texts each author draws upon, meaning that the curious reader must expend considerable energy to track down the sources of specific passages. One hopes that subsequent editions of these books will strive to better combine respect for the prodigious research each author has undertaken with the needs of academic and non-academic readers alike.

In spite of these minor quibbles, these two books remain essential reading for anyone interested in prairie waterways and their histories as economic instruments, transportation and communication routes, source of hydroelectric energy, and as metaphors. "What is a river for?" asks Kostash in her conclusion: it is a question that will demand rigorous thought and conversation if these lifelines of the prairies are to be wisely nurtured and enjoyed by generations to come.

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