Until fairly recently, I believed that my father had been born and raised in Montreal. My German-American grandparents had left their farm in Minnesota and, for some reason, went against the grain of westward migration and moved to Quebec. This belief was based on statements by my maternal grandmother – who raised me – such as “Your father was from Montreal, you know,” and “Your father was a French Canadian.” Their migration to Seattle in the mid-1930s when my father was sixteen made much more historical sense.
My paternal grandmother was alive in Seattle until I was thirteen, and we visited her every few months. But I never inquired about her past. And, sadly unlike my maternal grandmother, she wasn’t a story-teller. She dressed elegantly, had refined manners, and her apartment was handsomely decorated in late Victorian style. All that spoke of a venerable east coast city such as Montreal. She also bought me a Buffet clarinet, made in Paris, considered “the best of the best” by many professionals. To a nine-year-old’s logic, that was more proof of my French background.
This later suited my emerging personal mythology quite nicely, since I’d first visited Montreal at age sixteen and was enthralled by the city, its ambience and culture, and then again when I was eighteen. Immigrating to Canada from San Francisco, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Montreal – a trip that was cancelled for amorous reasons and rebooked for Vancouver. When I “discovered” hockey in 1976, I became a devout fan of Les Habs. After moving to the Maritimes, whenever I rode the train into Montreal, crossing the bridge over the St. Lawrence, I’d look at the city and think with a warm glow of connection, “My father grew up here.” I even wrote my Ph.D. thesis on two Montreal poets, A.M. Klein and Irving Layton.
Imagine my surprise when, at work on a memoir and finally researching my family history with scholarly rigour, I discovered proof that my father was, indeed, born in Canada. As well, according to a U.S. “Border Crossings” document from 1922, he briefly returned to Minnesota at age two and his “Race/Nationality” is listed as “French.” However, there is no evidence that he was ever east of Manitoba, and sufficient proof that he was born somewhere in the Canadian Prairies and spent almost all his childhood until age sixteen in Alberta, south and southeast of Edmonton, where his parents were living as early as 1903. Some of his uncles and aunts and cousins joined them. I have evidence that my father and his parents lived in Wetaskuwin and near Holden. The fact that an American customs official labelled my father “French” might reinforce one’s bias about American ignorance of life beyond that nation’s borders.
Overnight, I ceased to be the child of a Montrealer and became the son of a man who grew up hunting wolves and coyotes for bounty and working on ranches with his father, and no doubt helping with his dad’s moonshine and auction businesses. My father wasn’t slicing open baguettes, he was skinning critters. His later stylish fondness for dapper clothes, sleek sedans, and dancing in jazz clubs didn’t derive from a Montreal upbringing, but, I now reckon, from spending the Roaring 20s and early Dirty Thirties riding fence and hawking farm equipment in rural Alberta. My heritage wasn’t the fictionalized world of Mordecai Richler, Yves Beauchemin, Hugh MacLennan, and Marie-Claire Blais, but that of Robert Kroetsch, Merna Summers, and Guy Vanderhaege. Perhaps it was this lurking reality that made me switch my allegiance to the Oilers during the reign of Gretzy, et al. And a gravitational psychic force that pulled me back to the Rockies summer after summer to teach in The Banff Centre’s writing program.
There I met Bruce Hunter, a Calgary native, a program participant who was writing and publishing fine poetry, while working blue collar jobs. We struck up a friendship, which continued after he moved to Toronto, completed a Master’s degree, and secured a permanent position teaching English and Literary Studies at Seneca College. Recently, he was Author in Residence at the Calgary Public Library. From 1981 onward, he published five volumes of poetry, a short story collection, and the novel In the Bear’s House.
Lee Ellen often has to warn me against being a spoiler when it comes to fiction, so I will restrain myself with the characters and plot of Bruce’s wonderful novel. In the Bear’s House is partly a coming-of-age story, with young, hearing-impaired Will – known as Trout – as one of the two main characters. The narrative structure alternates between the third-person relating of Trout’s experiences and inner world, and first-person accounts by Clare, Trout’s mother. The story opens and remains for a long while in Calgary and the surrounding landscape, then moves to the country west of Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House – Kooteney Plains, the North Saskatchewan, the foothills and mountains of Jasper.
I want to quote and heartily second the cover blurb by poet Phil Hall: “I have always read Bruce Hunter because his wide integrity and his deep craft are equal. He uses words carefully because he has earned them. This is a coming-of-age story about Scots in working-class Calgary. Later, to the north-west, high crags, forest fire trails, hard lessons. Here is a life-affirming, place-affirming, wise mountain of a book.”
Clare’s sections make this equally, and remarkably, the story of a woman experiencing a different kind of coming-of-age – the adult kind of long-term rites de passage we all must or should undergo – in Clare’s case, as a working-class mother, wife, and home-maker in the 1960s-1970s; and as a woman of exceptional intelligence and talent, mostly side-lined, who must reclaim and enact that huge part of herself. As a male reader, my praise of a woman character crafted by a male writer may be called into question. However, based on my decades of living and of reading fiction, I was quite impressed and moved by Bruce’s ability to create an eminently complex, memorable, likable, admirable, inspiring, and convincing woman protagonist.
As for Trout, I’ll simply say that he is richly conceived and realized, utterly endearing, and unforgettable.
Also unforgettable, vibrantly drawn, and hugely admirable, are Trout’s Uncle Jack and Aunt Shelagh, along with a Stony elder, Silas Moses, and his grand-daughter, Carrie. But I will say no more about them.
There are suspenseful events and conflicts, ranging from the consequences of Trout’s disability to larger dramas in the northern mountains and valleys. But most of the novel’s suspense emanates from the characters’ inner lives and relationships, and this, along with Bruce’s deep appreciation of the landscape and understanding of these places, is where Hall’s “wise mountain of a book” is so applicable.
Finally, the language of the novel is everywhere vivid, evocative, captivating. He is a fiction-writing poet for whom the poetry serves the story and characters, without stealing the stage and showing off. The writing subtly dazzles. There’s nitty-gritty writing rooted in Bruce’s working class background: “He slung a climbing rope over his shoulders and took the Winchester rifle from the gun rack in the cab.” And there is language that crests from the page: Trout gets a new gold-receiver hearing aid and “Hearing brought new words with sharp flint edges that sparked when they struck.” He collects sea shells, and has a special conch: “In his blue-walled room he picked up his shells, caressed them one by one: comfort, order and calm. He held up the conch with its pearled knobs crowning it. He put it to his ear. Nothing. He held it against the gold receiver, which hung above his heart. Noise. Not the sea, which he’s never seen. But a sound like it: washing, circling, hinting.”
You do not have to discover that your ancestry is half-Albertan, or Scots, in order to love this novel. You just have to read Clare’s first words on the first page – “He was my first born, my blue baby, my water baby” – and Trout’s – “This was the place he’d hide, the deaf boy named Trout” and you will, I hope, be hooked. And, waving fare-thee-well to them later, know and care for these people and places as if they’re also your own.