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A Discovery Of Strangers [Paperback]

Rudy Wiebe
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Book Description

Sept. 26 1995
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 Franklin’s 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 expedition’s artist, and a fifteen-year-old Yellowknife girl known to the British as Greenstockings. A national bestseller, published also in Germany and China, Wiebe’s first novel in eleven years and his twelfth work of fiction won him his second Governor General’s 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 Franklin’s 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 Greenstockings’s 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 Tetsot’ine 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. That’s 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 there’s always a total contradiction in even trying to do such a novel,” he said in an interview, “and yet it’s the very contradiction out of which any kind of artistic struggle must come. It’s not even worth trying if it doesn’t 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 people’s heads while it was happening, why did they do what they did?” Franklin’s 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. “It’s 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 General’s 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.”

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Review

“What is remarkable about Wiebe’s achievement in [The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People] – and now, in A Discovery of Strangers – is that he is able to be, it seems, both Faulkner and Balzac at once. That is, Wiebe can construct scenes of painstaking detail and psychological insight, and combine them or frame them in exciting historical situations . . . . A Discovery of Strangers is vintage Wiebe.” — Books in Canada

“Clash, crash, shock: there are plenty of clichéd verbs of collision to describe encounters between cultures. In A Discovery of Strangers, the meeting of the English and the Yellowknife Indians on whom they rely to guide them through the northlands is seldom so dramatically violent; it is, as the title hints, a gradual discover of strangeness, and all the more affecting for that . . . . A Discovery of Strangers is a triumph of translation: with unflinching understanding and the powers of a very fine storyteller, Rudy Wiebe has once again delivered us our past.” — Quill & Quire

“The author is a master of descriptive prose . . . . This memorable novel will add to the author’s reputation as one of Canada’s most gifted writers – a peerless delineator of his country’s history and soul.” — Canadian Jewish News

“Wiebe continues to do what he does best: capture on a broad canvas many of the epic events in Canadian history . . . . a major work of art. Wiebe provides some of the most evocative prose yet about the Canadian North.” — Maclean’s

“Its fascinating events are solidly rooted in history . . . but in Rudy Wiebe’s rendition it becomes a history transmuted by art into a strangely original, intensely personal vision . . . . It is a pleasure of the first order – the pleasure of true art.” — Josef Skvorecky

“A circuitously told, poetically charged work that resonates long after the book is closed.” — Edmonton Journal

“Magnificent. A love story . . . an adventure story . . . a dramatic tale . . . a winner.” — The Calgary Herald

“I was captivated from the very first words – so ironic, so poetic, so true.” — St. John Evening Telegraph

“A work of extraordinary originality and beauty . . . every sentence of this novel speaks of his respect and love for the aboriginal way of life.” — The Globe and Mail

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 boy’s response to the death of his sister – based on Wiebe’s 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 Winnipeg’s 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 community’s 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 don’t 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 Wiebe’s 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.


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First-rate historical fiction March 19 1997
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This is an excellent fictional account of Franklin's *overland* expedition to the Arctic Ocean. Through the device of multiple narration, it presents us with both the Aboriginal and European perspective on the events. Wiebe did his homework: the novel is solidly based on the first-hand accounts of Franklin, Back, Hearne, and others. The influence of Faulkner is evident in narrative style, prose style and theme. Faulkner's great story The Bear was clearly an influence
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First-rate historical fiction March 19 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is an excellent fictional account of Franklin's *overland* expedition to the Arctic Ocean. Through the device of multiple narration, it presents us with both the Aboriginal and European perspective on the events. Wiebe did his homework: the novel is solidly based on the first-hand accounts of Franklin, Back, Hearne, and others. The influence of Faulkner is evident in narrative style, prose style and theme. Faulkner's great story The Bear was clearly an influence
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