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Books Canadian artists are reviving the classic American western

I fell in love with westerns as a kid growing up in Kamloops, B.C., in those long-ago days before Star Wars when boys took Bonanza lunch-boxes to school and debated who was faster on the draw, the Two-Gun Kid or Matt Dillon.

By the time I was a teenager, a realization had begun to dawn. There was (and is) something politically reactionary baked into those beloved narratives. This wasn’t limited to a few specific westerns, either; it’s down there in the coding of the genre.

This didn’t short circuit my love affair with Dusters, which continues to thrive. Ever since adolescence, though, my fanboy experience has been uncomfortably bifurcated: I get swept right along by the saga, even as I’m cringing at the politics of what can feel – even in a genuine classic such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – like a subliminal recruiting drive for the National Rifle Association.

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Hence my keen appreciation for the ways in which Canadian storytellers have been reinventing this most American of genres, in an era when the western has come to feel more relevant than ever – and not for reassuring reasons.

Westerns are self-consciously mythical. They exist to shape and promulgate a historical narrative, one that’s pretty much white, settler, male, gun-totin’ and Protestant. At worst, the narrative can also serve to manufacture a racial, cultural and political foundation myth.

And at a scary time such as right-this-minute – amid the wide-spread invention, manipulation and weaponization of historical myth – this becomes particularly fraught.

There’s truth in the old cliché about the western being America’s answer to Greek tragedy. The genre rarely aspires to (much less scales) genuinely Sophoclean heights, but these are archetypal narratives nonetheless: morality plays much concerned with humanity’s standing in a cosmos that comes complete with its own unique gods, Furies and forces of destiny.

The archetypes themselves have remarkable force, even when harnessed to no particular agenda – as in the Spaghetti westerns, which are after all just brilliant stylistic riffs that distill the western hero into his purest form, the thrilling (and terrifying) Man With No Name.

He’s also impossible to kill. At first blush, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven, with its portrait of an aged gunman who grows ever more hapless as he struggles to atone for his murderous past, might be seen as his demolition of the very archetype that defined his career. But there’s something so potent in the climactic sequence – when, liberated by the demon whisky, the old gunslinger can finally wreak vengeance on a town – that the sheer force of the storytelling serves to celebrate the apocalypse. Much the same happens in High Noon, when Gary Cooper’s solitary butt is saved in the final reel by Grace Kelly, his Quaker bride, who gets over her pacifism just in time to pick up a gol-darned firearm.

If you really want to revise the western, you need to mine the foundations. John Williams does that in Butcher’s Crossing, which may just be the best western you’ve never read; published in 1960, it got some long-overdue acclaim with a New York Review of Books Classics edition in 2007.

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Imagine Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage raised to the level of high art. The narrative concerns a journey into a hidden valley to hunt buffalo, and Williams subverts the most cherished myths of the genre, not to mention the American enterprise itself – the young man’s redemptive journey, the salvific force of the wilderness, the primacy of the striving individual – when the heroic quest collides with fate in the form of a fluctuation in the commodities market.

David Milch’s HBO series Deadwood stands as a long-form examination of the attempt to construct a sociopolitical structure out of anarchy and untrammelled greed. Its revisionist jewels include Robin Weigert’s Falstaffian reinvention of Calamity Jane, a woman brutalized and deeply closeted, whose protective shell amounts to a desperate performance of foul-mouthed, drunken, swaggering male bluster.

A still from Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik’s Strange Empire television series.

Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik’s Strange Empire occupies similar geographical terrain, a mining town just north of the Montana border in 1869. Finstad-Knizhnik is one of Canada’s most compelling TV showrunners, and the show’s single 13-hour season (it first aired on CBC in 2014) deserves wider recognition.

The brutally lyrical drama centres on the emergence of a community of women after a wagon train of settlers is attacked and nearly all of the men are killed or put to flight. This leaves the women to remake the western’s traditional archetypes, and the series resonates themes connecting to female rage and women’s right to violence – themes that would surge to the forefront of cultural consciousness with the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Meanwhile, B.C. novelist Alix Hawley’s Daniel Boone Frontier duology stands out as a new classic among Canadian-authored revisionist forays, despite being – in terms of its setting and protagonist – so very American.

The frontier narrative is not identical to the western, but it’s the direct progenitor. As a genre, frontier narrative has been freighted with white nationalist baggage since its first incarnation as Puritan sermon literature.

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As Richard Slotkin noted in Regeneration Through Violence, the New England Puritans saw their project as the New Israel, with the Indigenous people serving (at best) as children who needed to be led out of darkness. In the hands of Cotton Mather, the white captive narrative – true-life accounts of settlers held captive by “savages” – becomes the essential Puritan myth of endurance and salvation, with “the opulent promise of America … viewed primarily as a temptation of the devil."

Daniel Boone was a white captive, and the quintessential embodiment of the American Frontier hero: the idealist who forges into the wilderness with a dream of finding a “clean world” there. An increasingly disturbing set of contradictions lies at the heart of Hawley’s multiple award-winning All True Not A Lie in It (2015).

Where the first novel is narrated exclusively by Boone himself – the young Boone, with all the powers of youth – Hawley’s just-published sequel, My Name Is A Knife, follows him into middle age, weighed down by disillusionment and loss and clinging with increasing desperation to the contradictions of his own mythologized self. It also interweaves a second narrative voice, juxtaposing Boone’s self-mythologizing against the perspective of his estranged wife, Rebecca.

She roots the narrative in the flesh-and-blood actualities of frontier life. Compellingly, she is also the one who must live within the real-world consequences of her husband’s myth-making. In one moment of bitter introspection, she seethes at having been defined as a character by someone else’s story: “I never asked to be spoken of, to become a tale to amuse everyone….”

My own revisionist foray, The Death and Life of Strother Purcell, sets out to frame the old gunfighter archetype within a narrative that spans two centuries and much of the continent and is ultimately about the vexed nature of storytelling, involving several unreliable narrators who see only what they want to see, mediated by an editor who’s out of his depth. The supporting cast includes Wyatt Earp and his third wife Josephine Sarah (Sadie) Marcus, the first of the visionary brand-managers.

Meanwhile, Leacock medalist Gary Barwin is currently at work on a Western-themed novel that he has described as exploring “Karl May’s Winnetou novels as loved by the Nazis;” its protagonist is a Western-obsessed Jewish Holocaust survivor who is searching for his lost testicles.

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Having had the great pleasure of hearing him read a chapter of the novel-in-progress, I can report that it is as wonderful as it sounds.

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