Edmonton Journal Review - Reading the River

North Saskatchewan has tales to tell
Reviewed by: Ed Struzik

Canadian river impacted history like those in the U.S., Europe

Canada is as much a land of rivers and lakes as it is mountains, prairie, boreal forest and tundra. We have less than once per cent of the world's population, but nearly 10 percent of the renewable freshwater supply.

Perhaps that's why we take our rivers and lakes for granted. Canadians tend to look at freshwater more as a means by which to drive industry, energy development, agriculture and sewage disposal systems. In May 2001, 2,920 bags of garbage were collected in Edmonton's river valley during the annual spring cleanup.

While it's true that much of the world is guilty of the same kind of abuse, people elsewhere are treating and talking about rivers in a different way. Several U.S. states, for example, are dismantling dams and weirds to allow for the return of salmon and other fish species. The city of Los Angeles is hoping to raise nearly a billion dollars to restore parts of the natural river that once flowed through the town.

Why the difference in thinking?

In the United States and Europe, the Colorado, the Mississippi, the Thames and other rivers have had a profound impact on history and culture.

Think of Mark Twain and the Mississippi, Larry McMurtry, Gloria Anzaldúa, Woody Guthrie and the Rio Grande, Norman Maclean and the Blackfoot, Henri Matisse and the Seine, and Claudio Magris and the Danube and you get a sense of how rivers have shaped art and a way of thinking.

In Magris's 1986 bestseller Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, the author builds the story around a trip down the great river through the heartland of Europe. Along the way Magris paints an evocative portrait of the places and people that distinguishes Central Europe from the rest of the world.

Inspired by what Magris had accomplished, writer Myrna Kostash wondered why it is that Canadians don't talk about rivers like the North Saskatchewan in the same way. 

Is it because our history, poetry and art are all still too young to generate that kind of emotionally charged dialogue? Is it because we have so much of a good thing that we don't cherish it?

Perhaps it is, as Kostash herself concedes at the outset. But that didn't stop her and research associate Duane Burton from pulling together as many stories as they could find that relate to the North Saskatchewan which flows from the Rocky Mountains into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

I must admit that initially I was skeptical about the success of the book that followed, not so much because I didn't think that were was a compelling story to be told, but because I doubted that it could be told successfully by someone who had neither canoed nor drive the entire length of the river system.

Unlike Magris who, real or imagined, navigates the Danube, there is little evidence that Kostash and Burton had done anything more than visit a few spots here and there.

But knowing from experience that Kostash is anything but conventional when it comes to writing, I decided to give the book a chance.

About a third of the way through, I was no longer thinking that the narrative was too disconnected or that it lacked an intimate voice or engaging style. Instead, I accepted it for the literary collage it was--a chain of voices strung together in a compelling way. In this case, the sum was indeed bigger than the individual parts.

The chain of voices is an eclectic one.

On one page you might read about David Thompson, North America's greatest explorer, before turning to thoughts of Darrin Hagen, the Rocky Mountain House native who was voted both sexiest man and sexiest woman in Edmonton. Artist/adventurer Paul Kane, poet Eli Mandel, writer Tomson Highway and Metis scholar Howard Adams also play bit parts in the narrative that brings to life this historical waterway. The book is, as its subtitle suggests, a wonderful traveller's companion.

It should also encourage debate about the way we've taken this and other great rivers in Canada for granted.

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