A few things could be dispensed with in reviewing books set on the Prairies: claiming that the spareness of the prose reflects the spareness of the land; invoking W.O. Mitchell, Sinclair Ross and Margaret Laurence like great windswept, dusty, dour gods of that vast, homogenizing category, western literature; using words like windswept, dusty, dour; assuming the book is humourless, the people hard. Or defaulting to discussions of landscape.
In poet Lorna Crozier's Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir , the landscape cannot be avoided, though hardly by default; to ignore it would be a disservice to a book that reads like an extended love letter to the prairie landscape and the people who are shaped - shaped, not beaten down - by it. To live on the rural or semi-rural Prairies is to inhabit landscape completely, and for it to inhabit you.
Few describe or infuse with meaning this phenomenon better than Crozier, whose 15 previous books have much to do with the natural world. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with her poetry that a good deal of her memoir involves the natural world, the elements, the country that is "your starting point, the way you understand yourself, the place you return to when there's nowhere else to go."
These 20-some recollections punctuated with prose poems based on "First Causes" - Aristotle's idea of an immovable force at the start of everything - (Light, Wind, Dust - yes, there's no escaping it - Mom and Dad, Rain, Snow, Sky, Insects, Grass, Gravel, Horizon and, finally and inevitably, Story) are set in a world where tumbleweeds roll like "straw-coloured candelabras" under a sky "skinless yet animate, waiting for something to happen," where dust is "the bride's veil and the widow's, the skin between this world and the next," where the horizon is "a meeting place where suitcases sit in a row across a marble floor, and passengers, with bare open faces, look for someone they once loved."
It is a phrase that speaks to the heart of memoir, and of this memoir in particular, as much about the people the author knew as a child as it is about the author herself. Crozier plays a supporting role in this narrative; admirable, given the conventions of the genre and human nature. Don't expect a writer's-coming-of-age tale.
There is little of the self-consciously developing writer in these pages, and though one might wish for more, Crozier steadfastly resists solipsism and self-aggrandizement, writing instead about her friends, her brother, her father and, especially, her mother - the humble, plain-spoken, long-suffering but undefeated heart of this book - with such wide-open generosity, compassion and love that it is difficult not to be deeply moved.
At her best when she resists explaining too much, Crozier displays a poet's skill for metaphor while, for the most part, avoiding sentimentality. If the narrative sometimes drifts toward the nostalgic, one can understand: This book is also a love letter to Crozier's late mother (the piece First Cause: Mom and Dad is Crozier at her most heartbreakingly funny and tender).
The readers feel they, too, have known and admired Peggy Crozier, who loves the wind, who cannot imagine wanting to go anywhere else but Saskatchewan. Though toward the end, the book strays into territory that may be too New-Agey for some tastes, it is saved elsewhere by Crozier's unflinching dedication to portraying the simple transcendence of ordinary lives.
Though perhaps they are not so ordinary as familiar, the women who make sandwiches on homemade buns for a late-night lunch while the men play cards, who wonder if they should rush home to close windows before the hoped-for rain, whose favourite meal, as for Crozier's mother, is whatever anyone else in the family wants. And men like Crozier's father who, "even half-cut," would always win the curling bonspiel, who display tenderness in unconventional but unmistakable ways.
Here, eccentricities are not only accepted, but expected, and even they are familiar: Mr. McIntyre Jr., who created the smoking, roaring mechanical horse Blow Torch, highlight of the town parade; Grandfather Crozier, who shared pints of beer with his horse Billy at the local bar, stumbling home together afterward; and Grandmother Crozier, her horrible "milk leg" swollen to three times normal size, living in a house "like something from a fairy tale that ended badly," drinking only hot water "with no colour and no flavour, warming something cold inside," while grimly warning her granddaughter that if she ate too many Fudgsicles, her hair would fall out.
If you've lived on the Prairies, you know these folks, this place. Dour, some might say. Dusty. Humourless. Hard. Maybe you have to grow up on the Prairies to understand what's tender in being the man called upon to shoot other people's animals, in the simple phrase "Look at old Charlie dance," or what's funny about someone's ailing parents working out their last rites during a power play in a hockey game.
Or maybe you just need to see it in the right light, the clear, prairie light that Crozier conjures, "so palpable and fierce ... it is too huge for dreams, too persistent for solitude."
Small Beneath the Sky begins with light. Which is so appropriate to this landscape it would seem a shame to begin anywhere else. Light, not dust, humour, not misery, infuse this memoir. Like the Prairies, a thing worth returning to.
Jacqueline Baker is the author of A Hard Witching: And Other Stories and The Horseman's Graves, both set near Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where Lorna Crozier was raised.