Robert Kroetsch’s What the Crow Said
General, 1978.

Some students are introduced to Robert Kroetsch in university; his novel Badlands was on my introductory English course, but apparently the professor opted for another work. So I discovered What the Crow Said thanks to a list compiled by Aritha van Herk.

In some ways, that seems a shame. Surely university studies could have been enlivened by studying a book like this. Take some of the adjectives from the cover — funny, mystical, raunchy, strange, maddening and distinguished — and mix them with the nouns — magic, humour, poetry. It’s certainly intriguing, no?

The municipality of Bigknife, on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, is nothing if not curious. In some ways the novel strikes me as a combination of Mordecai Richler, Thomas King, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I draw the latter into the mix because there are so many days of rain in Macondo and, in What the Crow Said, there is a 151-day-long card game, but if I were better read in magical realism, I might be able to draw a more pertinent parallel.

“They had not slept for three days and nights, the assembled players. It was almost dark in the basement, even during the afternoon; at night the holy candles, brought down from upstairs, hardly lit the cards.”

At three-days-long, readers are thinking that the card game is stretching the question of credibility, but a 151-days-long card game is completely believable. No, that’s not a typo. It is completely believable. Because we’re not talking ordinary life as we know it, but ordinary life in Bigknife.

There is something magical and bizarre and homespun and ordinary about this tale that begins with Vera Lang and a swarm of bees. There is something wonky and queer and comfortable about it. It’s a strange feeling indeed.

“Cathy, the youngest of the six sisters, was the normal one. All her life she’d heard it: after the wild glory of her older sisters, she heard, always and again. “You’re the normal one, Cathy. Thank heavens.” They said it with such enthusiasm, her relatives, her friends, her mother, her sisters themselves. But no one ever explained.”

I’m not going to explain it either. Partly because I’m not sure that I can. Or, at least, not sure that I can without re-reading and spending more time with the text than I’m prepared to spend with it just now (when I’d much rather read on and sample the author’s Alibi, which is also highly recommended).

But, also, I don’t want to explain it. Part of what I loved about this novel was the sense that it straddled the ridiculous and the ordinary.

“Isador Heck had toured the continent as a man being shot from a cannon. It was the only job he could get, given his qualifications as a prairie wheat farmer.”

I was a bit broken-hearted when I first saw the green-screen that allowed for all the special FX in the Star Trek series, and I think if I thought too long about what makes this novel work, it would take the fun out of it for me as a reader. I want to hang onto the magic of it.

I’ve only just discovered Robert Kroetsch’s novels. And even though this is the kind of novel that, in another mood, might have frustrated and irked me, I was perfectly happy with it. I just kept reading, bemused but content. Something about his prose kept me turning the pages, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the buzz of confusion that surrounded me.

There is humour in this novel but, as with Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water, there is tragedy, too.  But where King had buffalo, Kroetsch has a crow. Where King had a painted church, Kroetsch has a cannon. One had a bridge — a broken bridge but, still. And one had a flood.

“We’re going to be afflicted with a flood. That’s the one certainty we have in our miserable lives. We’re going to have one godawful nut-buster of a flood.”

I’m pretty sure that I spent much of my reader’s time with this novel underwater. I was fully immersed, and holding my breath longer than I’d’ve thought that I could. But, at the same time, I was filled with that delightful dizziness you get when you’re not getting all the oxygen you need.

Have you read Robert Kroetsch? Have you thought about it? What would you imagine the book’s contents to be based on its cover image?