Thursday, March 06, 2008

Reader's Diary #333- Rudy Wiebe: Temptations of Big Bear (FINISHED)

Reading through an introduction written by Allan Bevan (not the edition shown in the picture), I wasn't sure I was going to like this book. At the first mention of Wiebe's "great number of narrative techniques" my curiosity was piqued. I love it when authors take risks and aren't afraid to shake it up a bit. Then, I'm also put off when authors take on too many characters. Worse, Bevan goes on to say that some of the internal monologues are "presented in an involved, stream-of-consciousness prose, reminiscent of..." dare I say it, "Faulkner." Oh no! I want to like stream-of-consciousness writing, I really do. From an artistic point of view, I like the idea of capturing the fluidity and randomness of thought. From a reader's point of view, I find it sooo hard to follow along. While it mightn't necessarily be as realistic, I like when authors decipher or translate a character's thoughts in a clear, precise manner.

And Temptations of Big Bear was confusing. However, all cannot be blamed on stream-of-consciousness. It also has a dizzying abundance of characters, most of which have names like He Speaks Our Tongue, Little Bad Man and Four Sky Thunder which, from a white reader's perspective, took a lot of getting used to. And it's long (415 pages).

But in Wiebe's defense, I travelled across the country with two small kids while trying to read through this book. I battled flu. I had a lot of distractions. Charlotte's Web would have presented a challenge.

Yet despite it all, I enjoyed it. Sometimes the confusion even added to the atmosphere. When the Cree people were dancing and involved in their ceremonies, it was mesmerizing. No, I may not have understood it all, but perhaps I wasn't meant to.

And despite all the characters, Big Bear alone provided enough of a focus. Temptations of Big Bear is historical fiction and, according to the intro, Wiebe kept as close to fact as possible. If he succeeded in portraying Big Bear as true to life, he was one compelling character. Strong-willed, Big Bear stuck to his ideas and principles despite the pressures on either side. When the government insisted on signing up for reserve land, Big Bear held out for a better deal. When his People insisted on using violence against the whites, Big Bear resisted that as well.

It was a shocking, difficult time in Canada. As the whites moved west, they told the Cree and other native groups, "The land was and is the Queen's. She has allowed you to use it." Add starvation (from the eradication of the buffalo) and new diseases, it's no wonder native groups thought they had only two choices: try to collect on promises of meagre food and shelter while settling on reserves, or fight. Big Bear seemed to have a third option in mind: to organize his People and try diplomacy. But whether it was out of desperation or racism, no one allowed him that chance.

The Soundtrack:
1. Earth Intruders- Björk
2. Hunger Strike- Temple of the Dog
3. Words of Fire, Deeds of Blood- Robbie Robertson and the Red River Ensemble
4. Land Rights- Xavier Rudd
5. One Drum- Leela Gilday

This marks my 9th book for the Canadian Book Challenge, covering Saskatchewan (Wiebe's birth province).


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I do recall hearing about this book. It sounds like quite a lengthy attempt for a Canadian Book Challenge, so kudos.

Why did I think Rudy Weibe was from Manitoba?

John Mutford said...

Barbara: It won the Governor General's award in 1973. According to Wikipedia (which, as we know, is never wrong), Wiebe was born at Speedwell near Fairholme, Saskatchewan.

Anonymous said...

I've heard "Temptations of Big Bear" is a difficult read and, it seems, Wiebe is one of those writers people either really like or cannot stand him. I've read one novel by him (Sweeter than All the World) and really enjoyed it - could by my Mennonite background.
Wiebe is also my Saskatchewan choice (Peace Shall Destroy Many). This has me excited to read Wiebe again.