I wasn't the only reader for whom the highlight of Canada Reads 2009 was Michel Tremblay's The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, which was a book that we all should have read, that we were all better for having read, but I would never have picked it up otherwise. Sometimes the prospect of looking to the past for books we should have read is a bit like contemplating getting into Joyce Carol Oates-- where do we start, and how would we ever be able to stop?
So it's nice to get a bit of guidance, and I feel the very same about Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese, which I'd never even heard of until I encountered NCL obsessive Melanie Owen online. In its day (1925), Wild Geese was a bestseller, was even made into a film, and heralded a new direction in Canadian fiction (though I'm not sure who followed in that direction-- Sinclair Ross? Hugh MacLennan? See, with this early stuff, my knowledge is very sketchy. I read Ernest Buckler once. Anyway...)
Wild Geese takes place in a rural community in northern Manitoba. Schoolteacher Lind Archer arrives to board with the Gare family, and quickly realizes that something is amiss-- somehow Caleb Gare has got his wife and children stuck under his thumb, and they're terrified of defying him. He works them like animals on the farm, keeps them isolated from the community, wields his power with brute force, and he takes care to bully and blackmail his neighbours on the side. Caleb has met his match in daughter Judith, however, powerful in spirit and body (she reminded me so much of Jo March), who is desperate to get away from her tyrannical father and is inspired by Lind to finally do so.
"Powerful" is overused as an adjective to describe a book, and I wish I could coin a new way to describe exactly what Wild Geese does to its readers. The book was engrossing in way I've not very often experienced-- closest comparison is my Andrew Pyper nightmares. Usually I read at a distance from novels, keeping the literary world and my own sensibly divided, but parts of Wild Geese crept into my consciousness. I read the chapter where Lind comes home in the dark and keeps making out creepy shadows and shapes behind her and around her, and I read this in the middle of a sunny afternoon, but I was freaked out. Similar, the conclusion-- I absolutely couldn't take it anymore and had to skip to the final pages to prevent a heart attack.
I also had such strong feelings about Caleb's wife, Amelia Gare. Caleb had married her aware that she'd previously had a child out of wedlock, and he uses this knowledge to control her throughout their marriage. The control, however, comes from Amelia's fear that Caleb would tell her son of his background (which he had been blissfully unaware of, told he was well-born, by the priests who'd raised him). Amelia's feelings for this son are so strong that she is willing to sacrifice her other children for him, the spirited Judith in particular, and this absolutely enraged me as I read. Perhaps more than Caleb did himself.
Caleb Gare is a fascinating character, soft-spoken in the creepiest way possible. At first, I thought he was simplistic, his purposes far too blatent-- Ostenso has him rubbing his hands together whilst surveying his land, wondering, "what the occasion would be, if it came to that, which would finally force him to play his trump card, as he liked to call it... He firmly believed that knowledge of Amelia's shame would keep the children indefinitely to the land..."
But when I saw him interacting with members of the community with similar schemes and tricks, manipulating and blackmailing, this behaviour with his family began to seem very consistent. Caleb Gare is a completely unsympathetic character, and I am not sure this equals a lack of complexity in his moral make-up. We are tuned these days to see such characters as poorly drawn, but I'm not sure now. Ostenso has Caleb Gare making sense: everything he did was for his own gain-- he worked his family hard so that he wouldn't have to work as hard himself or pay anyone else to do so, he worked his neighbours to get his hands on their land and therefore expand his own power. He delighted in this power too, perhaps his only source of joy, save for his land, and there is a vital relationship between the two.
In addition to his sheer meanness, we are supposed to see Caleb Gare's connection to his land as part of the motivation for his behaviour, but this is a given, not wholly explored. Which I've found in a lot of books, actually. It's taken for granted that land can make a man do certain things, but I'm often left wondering exactly why. Ostenso does show that Gare (through using his family as slaves) is able to reap a bounty from the harsh northern lands in a way his neighbours are unable to do-- that his domination extends even to the crops he commands. But I would have liked to know more about why Caleb feels the way he does about his land. It could be, however, that we don't know how he feels the feels and thinks very little beyond his conniving. That Caleb is absolutely spiritually bankrupt, and this does seem to be the case.
Ostenso's treatment of the landscape itself is vivid, of the inhabitants, and elements of Norse mythology informing their lives lends to the spooky treatment. The depiction of the land is also remarkable for the way in which the delicate, lovely and elegant Lind Archer's contrast with it. Her presence as a foreign object in this strange brutal place is the catalyst for all that transpires, and also gives us a perspective on the Gares from without, which is most illuminating. Her relationship with Mark Jordan, another recently transplant (who is Amelia Gare's illeg. son! This is not a spoiler, however, as we're told from the outset) provides also provides necessary relief from the brutality of all other human relations.
In short, unlike much Canadian prairie fiction, Wild Geese didn't make me want to kill myself.
From about midway in, I was rapt by this book, but there is one big reason why it won't be top of my list of Canada Reads: Independently picks. Primarily, the way in which the prose of Wild Geese manages to sometimes reads like an undergraduate essay on Wild Geese. Such as when Lind Archer says, "That's what's wrong with the Gares. They all have a monstrously exaggerated conception of their duty to the land-- or rather to Caleb, who is nothing but a symbol of the land." There is something particularly ubsubtle about the book's structures, particularly when compared to the complexity of a book like Century.
Still though, it's a riveting read, pushes its language and imagery in challenging directions, is unafraid to shy away from uncomfortable or even horrifying situations, and tackles female sexuality in a beautiful way. (Yes-- Canadian fiction in which the woman gets to be the horse, for once.) If this book is underread, it should be no longer.
Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder
2) Century by Ray Smith
3) Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso