Pages & Patches Review - Bone Coulee

Pages & Patches
Reviewed by: Devin Pacholik

Farming and the small town are genres where I come from. These days in Saskatchewan, they are genres that revolve heavily around the demise of local industry and what that means to the arguably last generation of farmers. These men and women understand a facet of prairie history that a city kid like me can't imagine.

Larry Warwarkuk's Bone Coulee suggests these histories are as idyllic as they are mystic and dark. Especially in parallel with Saskatchewan's aboriginal history: there are evil truths we must face. This is true for the small town of Duncan, now witnessing the end of the era of family farms. Duncan is the life-long home of the Ukrainian immigrant, Mac Chorniak. He is a semiretired widower and a reader of Taras Shevchenko poetry. Mac was also implicated in the murder of Thomas Desjarlais. It was an accident, maybe, or an act of passion or drunkenness or perhaps it was Thomas' fault. Given the hazy circumstances of the incident, Mac and his now old-time coffee buddies were never charged. The court dropped the case and Mac and his friends grew old.

Mac now lives alone on his plot of his once-bustling farm land near the Bone Coulee -an ancient cliff where natives used to run buffalo to their deaths, and later where they collected bones to sell to colonizers. The coulee holds artifacts like arrow heads and is land-scared from the rubbing of stone on pelt. That is until Roseanna Desjarlais, an Aboriginal woman, moves to Duncan with her daughter, Angela. Roseanna is the sister of the murdered Thomas. She, who on that night was the object of young Mac's desires, has lived a hard life and grown older and wiser, but she has not forgotten the past either. Roseanna's daughter Angela is an artist and a scholar at the First Nations University. Mac meets Angela when the young woman finds an injured owl near Mac's property. Mac, perhaps a softer man now, decides to help Angela take care of the bird. The least he can do, is build it a cage.

Bone Coulee, even with my sparse telling of the plot, is clearly oozing with metaphors and commentary. I could talk about Warwaruk's ironic treatment of farming practices entering the modern world, the tension between truth and happiness, and the necessity of storytelling and history keeping. But my favourite quality of Warwaruk's writing is it is about people. He is superb with his commentaries, but they are placed well within action, the plot stuff carried out by characters who matter. Warwaruk's characters do sometimes terrible, hilarious, or kind things to each other. Mac and his old friends sit in a Chinese diner and debate local politics and talk about the good-old-days of government, they get star struck by local reporters they know from the news, they are concerned about crossing cultures and Mac's new neighbours, and even as life goes on, Duncan's past stirs.

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