Sue Sorenson, Ed. West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature

By Seiler, Tamara Palmer | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Sue Sorenson, Ed. West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature


Seiler, Tamara Palmer, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


Sue Sorenson, ed. West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2008.340 pp. Bibliography. Index. $28.95 sc.

Some readers might avoid this book, assuming that more than enough has already been written about Canadian prairie literature. After all, much was written on the subject in the 1960's and 1970's, and a relatively substantial literature building on and re-evaluating earlier work has emerged more recently. Readers familiar with this scholarly corpus might well be tempted to say, "been there, done that," and leave this book unopened. However, in my view, doing so would be to lose an opportunity to see Canadian prairie life and its literary representation with the renewed enthusiasm and flashes of insight that can come from re-visiting familiar places, especially with some new companions. Indeed, readers of Canadian Ethnic Studies with an interest in ethno-religious dynamics might be particularly intrigued by this volume, which was published by CMU (Canadian Mennonite University) Press, and is, to date, that press's only publication in the area of literary criticism. Moreover, the editor, prairie native Sue Sorenson--an assistant professor of English at CMU, an unapologetically Christian critic with a special interest in the interface between religion and literary and filmic representation, and a background in English literature, rather than in Canadian--is a new voice on the Can Lit scene who brings an unusual perspective to an examination of Canadian prairie literature.

Not surprisingly, West of Eden bears the imprint of the editor's Christian perspective very explicitly in the title and in the concluding essay, "Mapping Our Mental Geography: Regionalism as Pedagogical Strategy," wherein Tina Trigg and Philip Mingay explore ways of teaching Canadian prairie literature in a post-secondary institution with a Christian mandate. Sorenson's Christian perspective is also present to some degree in the way her "Introduction" frames the enterprise; however, it certainly would not be accurate to characterize this book as the obvious product of a strongly and uniformly Christian ethos. Dedicated to Robert Kroetsch, arguably the (seemingly quite secular) "dean" of prairie writing, as opposed to the avowedly Christian Rudy Wiebe, who might reasonably be thought the more obvious candidate for such an honour in this context, the volume comprises, in addition to the aforementioned "Introduction," a "Foreword" by Warren Cariou, and fifteen essays, the latter presented within five sections: "What Is This Place?," "Early Voices" "Established Voices" "Cultural Studies," and "Teaching the Prairies." The volume also contains a bibliography and an index, though not, unfortunately, any information about the various contributors.

While, perhaps surprisingly, a Christian perspective is not what unifies this collection, most readers will, I believe, agree with Sorenson's assessment that the work does have a certain coherence. Or, as Sorenson puts it, given that the project began as a general call for papers on prairie literature, "the result was less miscellaneous than I expected." In her view, the recurring argument that unites the articles is that despite the many calls in recent years for an end to the old emphasis on "the environmental basis of prairie literature" this idea is not dead yet, nor are "the discussions of realism and the importance of vernacular language" since "prairie people and prairie writers are still enormously engaged with the specific realities of land and climate, and the literary academy is being called again toward these subjects" (21). One might even say that at the centre of this diverse collection is Northrop Frye's famous question, "Where is here?" slightly revised to "where is here now?" and that the answers offered here generally point to the continuing relevance of the prairie landscape to the experiences and identities of those who live in the region.

In the title, West of Eden, Sorenson offers her contributors--and readers--a fecund framework for exploring this version of Frye's perennial question. …

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