I got to meet Robert Kroetsch a few times in 2000-2002 when I was living in Winnipeg, doing my masters in creative writing at the University of Manitoba. I was surprised to learn (after the fact) that he was born in 1927: the man I met didn’t look a day over 60, and was so full of energy and enthusiasm for young writers and their young work.
Despite my allusions to his What the Crow Said in my own novel Off Book, I’m actually more familiar with Kroetsch’s poetry (Seed Catalogue, The Hornbooks of Rita K.) than his other work, and I came this week to his 1975 novel Badlands with a certain amount of hesitation. Maybe it was the bland brown cover of my New Press edition, but I was half-expecting prose as dry and austere as the prairie itself; I was expecting a novel written strictly for the academic set, for the prairie academic set no less.
What I wasn’t expecting was a book rich in hilarity and tragic adventure. Badlands tells the story of paleontologist William Dawe and his haphazard crew sailing down the Red Deer River in 1916 on the hunt for dinosaur bones in the Albertan badlands, told through the prism of Dawe’s estranged daughter Anna years later. The novel details Dawe’s single-minded obsession with finding a hitherto undiscovered fossil (a “Daweosaurus” as it were) and what such mania costs him as a father, a husband and a leader of men. The influences are obvious – Moby Dick with a dash of Heart of Darkness and The Caine Mutiny thrown in – but this is still a quintessentially Canadian novel, preoccupied as it is with notions of history and with relics.
Here, the bones that Dawe digs up represent a past that has become his present, has become what he has replaced his real present with. His expedition is complicated when a young aboriginal woman (referred to here by that horrid and antiquated slur squaw) meets the crew and becomes sexually involved with Dawe. The girl’s name is also Anna, and the connections and allusions between her and the framing narrative told by Dawe’s daughter reverberate throughout the text. The novel ends with the two Annas going on a very giddy road trip together through the badlands to make sense of the damage that Dawe’s expedition has done to them both.
If this all sounds a bit much, rest assured that there are fantastic moments of levity sprinkled throughout Badlands. These manifest mostly through a crew member named Web, whose oversexed mindset (oh, so many puns on the term “bone”) are as comical as his many instances of benign idiocy.
I’m quite pleased for taking a chance on this novel, and I’ll be reading more of Kroetsch’s prose in the future. Don’t be surprised if you see his earlier novel, The Studhorse Man (which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1969) crop up in my reading log before too long.