Harold Rhenisch, The Wolves at Evelyn

At a certain point, you should all know that I may quit reading anything but Harold Rhenisch.

Would it be tough to get off the treadmill that sees me doing about 50 reviews a year on this site? Probably impossible, but nobody writes like Harold Rhenisch, and if he's not getting as wide an audience as he deserves, well, maybe his fans should just obsess openly to make up for it.

The key to understanding Rhenisch's The Wolves at Evelyn, and much of the rest of his nonfiction, is coming to terms with his idiosyncratic understanding of colonization in British Columbia. Until you get used to it, things are weird. Describing his German grandparents' trip across Canada by train, Montreal to the Okanagan, Rhenisch changes up the geography:
"They might as well have taken a train from Mombassa, up to Nairobi, and then west to Lake Victoria, passing through the savannah and the flame trees, past the Masai villages and derelict train stations and mad Englishmen who had hitched zebras to their carts and careened wildly through the bush while their polo horses died of sleeping sickness and their coffee plants withered and shrivelled with blight and locusts stripped their corn fields down from spring to autumn in five minutes. This is how far they had come." (p.72)
Africa, of course, is not a country, and we're all Twitter-stoked to jump on a writer who might possibly be using Africa merely for metaphoric or symbolic effect (rightly so, in most cases). Rhenisch is a white Canadian, and it's weird to see him comparing Kenya with Canada, and it's weird to have him writing about the impact of subsequent waves of European colonization on previous colonists in Canada. But the world is a complicated place, and part of his point is that much of his Canadian childhood was lived not in BC but in an imaginary Heimat Deutschland. More broadly, too, the terrain of rural BC now is an overgrown checkerboard of failed colonist dreams (p.152), orchards and homesteads and small towns with lives so short that they never earned dots on a map, leaving nary a shadow or an echo unless -- like in a medieval English field -- you stumble over a hummock that you belatedly recognize as an overwhelmed fence.

British Columbia is Indian country, no question. Rhenisch is utterly clear about the intensity and depth of the prior claims on the land here, noting that "the Secwepemc knew the Cariboo before there were any trees on it, that they watched the trees come." At this date, though, Rhenisch wants to say that "Native and immigrant earths mingle in this country," even though over everything hang still "the stars out in the Chilcotin, in territory never ceded to Western civilization, which has never been owned" (pp.208-10). His family raised him in a transplanted Heimat, but ever since, he has been trying to think and write his way into a British Columbia that differs from the official version, and my imagination lives somewhere like the place he's trying to build.

As a nerdy English prof, lately I've been trying to think my way through to what might count as an honourable settler-colonial ecocriticism, and there's something in Rhenisch that I can't let go of, even if I can't grab onto it, either. I keep hoping that I'll figure out, for good, even just one thing about all this. Maybe one day.
Admittedly, I somehow haven't read his whole oeuvre yet, but it's coming: comments one, two and three on Tom Thomson's Shack, plus Winging Home, and now also The Wolves at Evelyn.


theresa said…
This is one my favourite books. The thing about Harold is that he doesn't write to a template, his books aren't manufactured to appeal to a particular publishing mode -- and those are the qualities that appeal to me most, I think. He doesn't tie up loose ends, his sense of narrative is organic and responds to weather and the idiosyncratic nudges of sunlight and starlight, so he's not necessarily easy to categorize or place. And than goodness for that.
richard said…
Thank goodness, indeed! I'm not always sure what's going on in his books (Carnival, for example), but it's always worth whatever struggle might be needed. I really admire his persistent refusal to make things easy for his readers, all the while handing over treasures we might not be recognizing.

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