Posts Tagged ‘Prairies’

A literature of our own

Friday, June 8th, 2012

At the Symposium on Manitoba Writing last month I was reminded of how, for a certain generation of writers, prairie literature was something they had to invent for themselves.

That got me thinking about books I’d read growing up. I don’t think I ever felt the same absence of literature that spoke my language. This is partly because of my age: by the time I began reading and writing poetry seriously, there was lots out there by prairie writers, probably much more than I realized at the time.

It was in the fiction I read in elementary school that I noticed differences between my world and the world of books. I read a lot of British books about girls in boarding schools, where they wore uniforms and only saw their parents during holidays, and a lot of books set in the eastern U.S., where schools had cafeterias and leaves turned red in the fall.

But then there was a series of books by Margaret Epp that I read and re-read: Prairie Princess, The Princess and the Pelican, and The Princess Rides a Panther. They are out of print now; written in the ’60s and ’70s, they were later reissued under different titles (Sarah and the Magic Twenty-Fifth, Sarah and the Pelican, Sarah and the Lost Friendship). The main character, ten-year-old Sarah Naomi Scott, lives on a Saskatchewan farm in the 1920s and attends a one-room school. Maybe it was the setting that made such a strong connection, and the fact that I, too, was about ten when I first read the books. I grew up in town, not on the farm, and my school had at least two classes for each grade. But those one-room schools still operated through the ’50s when my mother was a girl, and on my grandparents’ farm were relics of the horse-drawn wagon and the “bunk,” an enclosed vehicle on sleigh runners, in which she and her siblings travelled to school.

For that combination of reasons, I think, I loved those books and identified with Sarah Scott. It also helped that Margaret Epp, although not a relative as far as I know, actually lived in a nearby town. It was exciting to know that Real Writers came from small-town Saskatchewan, too.

Leaves on the family tree

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Summer is reunion season. On the August long weekend my mother’s family, the Klaassens, gathered in Saskatchewan to visit and to recount family history.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that our family is very fortunate in having a wealth of documents detailing its history. We have diaries and memoirs, as well as family registers that go back at least a couple of centuries. Many of these have been translated into English for the benefit of those— probably the majority, by now— who don’t read German (or don’t read enough German, at any rate). Some documents are even available online now.

The benefit of having documents like these is that through them it’s possible to see one’s ancestors as personalities rather than merely names. And larger events take on a new significance and vividness when we see how they affected particular people.

My great-grandfather’s diary, for instance. He faithfully records the weather, who preached at each church service and on what scripture text, what garden produce he took to town and the price he got for it. Not particularly riveting, at first glance. But his entry of August 6, 1934 stating that he got less than one cent per pound for his cabbages, was for me a strong illustration of the depth of the 1930s’ Depression.

My grandfather’s memoirs describe how heavy medical expenses, on top of the effects of the Depression, could completely drain a family’s finances. He admits that things might have been easier if they had applied for relief sooner, but he had scruples about it. “As it was,” he writes, “it took us all through the forties to get back on our feet financially.”

And reading the family registers brings home the fact that mortality rates were once much higher than now. It’s especially striking because, two hundred years ago, parents would re-use names: there might be two Catherines or three Johanns in the same family, but only the last survived to adulthood.

I am grateful for the previous Klaassens who first thought to record these things, and for those who saw the worth in them, who preserved the records and  and handed them on.

Naming flowers

Friday, July 15th, 2011

I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in a nearby provincial park where, among other things, I discovered many wildflowers I’d never seen before. After my initial delight and surprise I realized this was because, in other years, we’d always gone there in August, when many of these flowers were no longer in bloom, and I hadn’t even known they were there. The biggest thrill, probably, was finding wild columbine and blue flag. But there were many more, and I spent a lot of time searching through my copy of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. (An excellent reference book. Even reading the flower names is fun: lilac-flowered beardtongue, hoary puccoon, nodding onion…) In fact, I’d say flowers turned into a minor obsession on this trip.

What’s with this passion for naming and categorizing things? It’s useful to identify plants like wild raspberry, hazelnut, or Labrador tea. A person should be able to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle, just for the sake of self-protection. But why should it matter that this yellow flower is a form of groundsel, and those other ones are yellow avens? Why would you want to distinguish among the many types of vetch?

Yet naming and classifying is important to us, whether it’s grouping plants into families, sorting minerals, or dividing history into periods according to one scheme or another. I suppose it’s a way of looking for order in the world.

Much of the pleasure of wildflowers (or birds, or rocks, or mushrooms) is in the discovery, that involuntary “oh!” at seeing something exquisite for the first time. Still, there’s also something satisfying in being able to not only describe a plant but also name it. Columbine. One more little check mark in the book.

De gustibus non disputandum

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Or, in English, matters of taste are not to be disputed. Or, to stretch the concept a little, there’s no arguing with tradition. I’m thinking of how we often feel a strong pull toward things we’ve grown up with, regardless of how our beliefs, tastes or critical faculties have changed over time. This is expressed beautifully and hilariously in the song Zen Gospel Singing by Mark Graham (recorded by Bryan Bowers). In it the singer tells how, despite having left the church become a Buddhist, he misses the four-part hymn singing. He doesn’t believe in that sin-and-salvation stuff any more, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to get his Buddhist friends to sing more than one note at a time.

I had to laugh when I heard this song, because it reminded me of the Christmas songs we used to sing at family gatherings years ago. Some of them are truly lovely; others can be either lovely or drippily sentimental, depending on the day; still others are just not very good (sorry, Mom). Bells are mentioned frequently, as in “Süsser die Glocken nie klingen” (“Sweeter the bells never ring”), “Hört Ihr nicht die Weihnachtsglocken” (“Don’t you hear the Christmas bells”), or “Kling, Glöckchen, kling” (“Ring, little bells, ring”). Christmas trees come up fairly often, too, as in one of my favorites, “Welchen Jubel, welche Freude” (“What rejoicing, what delight”). I sang all these, and loved them, long before I understood the words.

But for a certain subset of Russian Mennonites from the prairies (my extended family included), the crown jewel of Christmas music was “Der Friedensfürst” (“The Prince of Peace”). It’s different from the others: not a hymn or carol, but a choral piece probably written around the turn of the 20th century. It’s composed of several short sections, with each pair of lines in the text having a different musical setting. It sounds like it was written in the popular-song style of the day. Once, at a carol-singing evening at the church we attended in Toronto, someone brought out copies of “Der Friedensfürst” and we sang it. Those of us who knew the piece were thrilled; those who were new to it didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

To this day I am not sure if it’s a good piece of music, objectively speaking. But that’s not the point. The point is that we used to sing it every Christmas, and now we don’t. And if, at some Christmas gathering, someone were to pull out a copy of the music, and if there were at least two other people in the room who knew it, I’d sing it. With feeling.