“The ‘geography’ in question is the Cypress Hills, a broken rise of land that straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, just north of Havre, Montana,” the author explains.*
“The country is a complete knockout for anyone who enjoys the romance of the Earth’s history or who is susceptible to the wild, windblown beauty of natural prairie. I was head over heels in an instant and knew I’d have a story to tell.”*
And this geography, this story, is a bloody one.
It is not the version of the wild west that is taught to schoolchildren and celebrated by tourists.
The story which Candace Savage unearths has much deeper roots.
(The portion quoted above is from a conversation about the process of writing the work, and these extracts are starred; quotes from the work itself are unmarked. Details below.)
As a storyteller, she does not take hold of the root and give a sharp tug.
She considers her surroundings, loosens the surrounding soil, and studies the extremities.
She acknowledges the reach, the inconnections and complexities, and explores the possibilities by wriggling a little.
“What if the hills weren’t really an uncharted wilderness before the Europeans showed up?”
This is a question for which we have an answer, for of course it was not an uncharted wilderness but a homeland. But that answer does not fit with the mythologizing of the frontier.
“What if there was more to indigenous prairie cultures than whooping and war clubs?”
This, too, is a question with an answer which directly challenges the myth of the Wild West.
“What if it wasn’t the Metis (as Stegner claims) who stripped these hills of wildlife, bringing their own way of life to an end?”
Stegner? That’s Wallace Stegner, the American writer, whose boyhood home was in Eastend, on the southeastern edge of the hills. The Stegners’ home is still there and operates as an artists’ residence, which is what initially drew Candace Savage and her partner, Keith Bell, to the town.
“At the time, I certainly didn’t anticipate that Wallace Stegner would be a companion through the early stages of my explorations or that I would end up daring to spar with him.”*
And spar she does, though perhaps it’s not a fair fight; Stegner only battles with words he has linked in the past.
But if the sparring isn’t fair, Stegner’s accounting is unfair as well.
“What I found in his writings was a classic–you could even say canonical–account of western settlement. Nobody from Stegner’s generation recounted that history with more passion or grace than he did in Wolf Willow, his reflection on his own Eastend years. I’m the descendant of generations of prairie “pioneers” myself, so I have a very personal stake in that history. In the end, the standard framing of the settlement story, as presented by Stegner and others, left me feeling troubled. Actually, make that mad.”*
But not only angry. A barrage of emotions awaited Candace Savage as she began to unearth the other versions of this old story. “These memories make us ashamed, angry, bewildered, regretful, curious, eager to understand. I know I felt all those things.”*
Ultimately, Candace Savage does not pull up this tale by the roots. She gets her hands dirty, and you can feel the grit beneath the nail, and the acknowledgement of deeper recesses and gashes beyond. But this is an open-ended exploration.
“If the incomer and Aboriginal communities ever do begin to talk sincerely about how the West was won, we are going to have a lot of painful ground to cover.”
A Geography of Blood is the beginning of a conversation.
Not a one-sided one either. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. No longer.
“Home Truth by Dudley Patterson, Apache elder, 1996
Wisdom sits in places.
It’s like water that never dries up.
You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you?
Well, you also need to drink from place.
You must remember everything about them.
You must learn their names.
You must remember what happened at them long ago.
You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.
Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.
Then you will see danger before it happens.”
* These excerpts come from a conversation which appears on Candace Savage’s website , following the publication of The Geography of Blood.