Wednesday, January 14, 2009

on good regional fictions and the imagined countryside

In my grad research seminar course at Guelph back when I was doing my PhD, we once had a guest lecture from retired geographer Phil Keddie, who suggested that a well-written regional fiction could often be as good source for understanding regional geographies and histories as any text book or scholarly monograph. I recently completed a wonderful book that led me to that recollection. It's a novel by a Norwegian writer, Per Pettersen, called Out Stealing Horses

The book is set in the Norwegian interior at two different locations during two different periods of time. The "present day" in the novel is set when the narrator/protagonist is pushing seventy years of age and has bought a run-down house overlooking a lake. It's coming up to Y2K, he has lost his wife and sister only a couple years previously, and he needs a retreat from his life in Oslo. He has no interest in the new millennium. As he fixes up the house, he reflects back on summers of his youth spent with his father in another place, a river valley near the Swedish border. His father, too, had reasons for retreating from Oslo to the countryside. And so the story begins to unfold.

I have been to Oslo and surroundings, but never to the Norwegian interior. But having read this book, I feel I can see at least parts of it simply by closing my eyes. The narrator's childhood valley was, at least in summertime, dominated by the colour blue. The sky, the river, even the interior of the houses (the narrator says rural people in the area believed the flies didn't like to settle on blue paint). People's eyes are blue. The farm woman who is the object of male desire wears a blue dress with a flower print, and becomes an embodiment of the valley and the way of life in rural, post-war Norway, which are equated with summer. The river's surface is calm but the current moves steadily underneath. Its water levels fall over the course of the summer drop, and it becomes a metaphor for time; the valley, its small-hold farms, horses, dairymaids and dirt footpaths will inevitably be carried away.

Present-day rural life is different.  There are no horses near the lake where the narrator makes his late-life retreat; cars and snowplows have replaced them. The narrator is the only pedestrian; people drive even a hundred meters to the store. Conformity is the name of the game now: the rural residents all use the same brand of chain saw, drive the same make of car. The thoughtful young couple that runs the local garage displays the sorts of traits that we associate with rural Norway in the old days - thoughtful, frugal and caring of their neighbours - but we get the impression they are a throwback, an endangered specie. It's autumn when the narrator comes to this place, and it's becoming dark, much like the narrator's life, as the days grow rapidly shorter and Norway enters its long winter. Unlike years before, the water in the narrator's life does not flow, the lake is still. The narrator sits and watches the lake, and does some fishing where a river enters into it, but he does not swim in it or row a boat on it the way he did the river of his youth. This place seems barely alive.

In my own research I spend a lot of time in rural areas, and I found myself comparing my own past experiences with Pettersen's portrayal of rural life while reading his book. I have not encountered any dairymaids in my travels in rural North America, but I have met women whose youth was spent gathering blueberries or picking cotton.  Mechanized agriculture and refrigeration have largely displaced these activities to valleys and hillsides in other countries. Simple riverside cabins and family farms are a rarity in our countryside, just as they are in Pettersen's Norway.

At the same time, we should be careful not to romanticize past rural livelihoods too much. It's nice to imagine a countryside populated with strong, gorgeous farm women and cheerful dairymaids with healthy glows from their cheeks and voices like flutes, who are admired and worshipped by men with strong backs and arms, an ability to tackle any job and who speak few words.  The reality, however, was that rural livelihoods were often grinding and backbreaking, that simplicity is not always voluntary but may be a kind synonym for poverty. Rural poverty was (and remains) anything but romantic.  

Pettersen's narrator is, in the end, a city boy, and his position vis a vis the rural people, landscapes and livelihoods he observes is contrasted against his own urban experience. This does not mean to say his observations are invalid; they are valid in the context of his own experience. And so, to return to Phil Keddie's observation,  a good regional fiction can indeed open a window to the geography and life of a particular place and time. We just need to remember that it is just that - a window. We enjoy the view and can observe from it, but a window is still surrounded by the walls which we do not see through, but obscure much of the picture that might otherwise be seen. 

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