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From the early days of North America, European settlers forced Natives aside, taking over their land on which they had lived for thousands of years. Big Bear envisioned a Northwest in which all peoples lived together peaceably, and in the 1880s made history by standing his ground to keep his Plains Cree nation from being forced onto reserves. The buffalo food supply was vanishing, but Big Bear led his people across the prairie, resisting pressure to cede rights to the land and give up freedom in exchange for temporary nourishment. The struggle brought starvation to his followers, tearing apart the community and eventually his own family. The story follows Big Bear’s life as he lives through the last buffalo hunt, the coming of the railway, the pacification of the Native tribes, and his own imprisonment.
Wiebe’s magnificent interpretation of Western Canadian history encompasses not only his hero's struggle for integrity and justice but also the whole richness of the Plains culture. Writing the unrecognized history of Western Canada required six years of study and travel through the prairies, a journey described vividly in the essay On the Trail of Big Bear. Wiebe was convinced that a new perspective was needed on the Canadian past and on prairie literature, which seemed to consist in “equal parts of Puritanism, Monotony, Farmers and Depression.” His aim was to draw the “imaginative map of our land,” to stamp a shared memory on it and make it come alive. He described how an epic might accomplish this:
. . . to break into the space of the reader's mind with the space of this western landscape and the people in it you must build a structure of fiction like an engineer builds a bridge or skyscraper over and into space. A poem, a lyric, will not do. You must lay great black steel lines of fiction, break up that space with huge design, and like the fiction of the Russian steppes, build giant artifact
Every character, date and major event in the book was taken from historical sources. As an author of historical fiction, Wiebe sifts through documents, searching for the story he needs to tell. “I see a number of possible stories I could write, and it sometimes takes longer . . . to decide which is the story I’m going to write, than the actual writing of it.” His art lies in bringing the characters to life. “You want your reader to understand these people . . . . You have to choose certain details to help readers see the kind of thing they did, the kind of people they were.” In The Temptations of Big Bear, he gradually places layers of imagined voices over the silence in the history books to create his narrative.
In November 1992, Wiebe received a letter from a woman who said she was Big Bear’s great-great-granddaughter. Yvonne Johnson was serving a twenty-five-year sentence for the murder of a man she believed to be a child molester in her home in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. The letter led to five years of phone calls and prison visits, interviews and personal journals, and finally to Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman, which Wiebe and Johnson wrote together. He realized that this mother of three had suffered not only a lifetime of abuse, but a miscarriage of justice. “The truth about it had to be told.” The book tells of the physical and sexual abuse of Johnson’s early years. She had little schooling and was a teen alcoholic. Wiebe felt it was a particularly moving story for women. “There are a lot of abused people. It doesn't depend on the colour of your skin or your heritage.” However, in the aftermath of the Canada-Indian Treaties and colonization, the statistics for violence, abuse, family breakdown and incarceration among Natives in Canada have certainly fulfilled the fears the Cree chief Big Bear had for his people.
Rudy Wiebe read as much as possible from an early age; his first reading materials were the Bible, the Eaton's catalogue and the Free Press Weekly Prairie Farmer; he also recalls listening to his parents’ stories of Russia. By Grade 4, he had read through the two shelves of books available in the one-room schoolhouse. Growing up, he enjoyed Les Miserables, Toilers of the Sea, David Copperfield, Tom Brown's Schooldays, Greek myths and Norse legends. Later an admirer of Faulkner, Márquez, Borges and Tolstoy, Wiebe has always held to the fundamentals of plot, character and, above all, story. He believes stories should begin in the specific and local but expand into “a human truth larger than any individual.”
Wiebe won his first prize for fiction while studying literature at the University of Alberta, where he enrolled in a writing class and began producing poems, plays and stories. His winning story in a Canada-wide contest recounted a young boy’s response to the death of his sister – based on Wiebe’s own experience – and was published in the magazine Liberty in 1956. After earning his B.A., Wiebe left for the ancient University of Tübingen in West Germany on a Rotary Fellowship to study literature and theology, an experience that increased his respect for older and richer communities. Tena Isaak of British Columbia joined him there and they were married. The couple travelled in England, Austria, Switzerland and Italy before returning to Edmonton, where Wiebe completed his M.A. in creative writing. His thesis grew into his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many.
In 1962 Wiebe earned a Bachelor of Theology degree from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College; he considered becoming a minister. He was editor of Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Herald when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published. Many conservative ministers and Mennonites in small towns objected to the novel's frank and at times unflattering portrait of community life, and there was considerable opposition to the book. “I wasn't exactly sacked as editor . . . but the committee came to me and said ‘Ahem.’ I resigned.” The strength of this reaction made him think hard about the power of the written word, and reinforced his sense of wanting to be a writer.
Wiebe then was invited to teach at a Mennonite college in Goshen, an agricultural town in Indiana with a large Mennonite and Amish population, where he would be Assistant Professor of English from 1963 to 1967. Goshen College was a lively and stimulating intellectual community where Wiebe committed himself to writing, study, teaching and travel. “I encountered men and women of real perception . . . really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus's followers and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had brought that kind of understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian. The best thing that ever happened to me was the meetings we had every two or three weeks in one home or another – seven or eight of us, a psychiatrist, a couple of theologians, a couple of literary people. There were the best theologians there, I think, the Mennonite Church has ever had.”
Wiebe published his second novel, First and Vital Candle, and began to explore the western United States and the Mennonite settlements in Paraguay. He returned to Edmonton as a professor in creative writing and English at the University of Alberta, and immersed himself in Canadian literature. He wrote reviews, essays and articles, edited anthologies and was soon established as a major figure in Canadian letters. In 1973, his novel The Temptations of Big Bear won a Governor General's Award. Since then he has continued to win the highest praise for his books of fiction and non-fiction. He has written numerous film and television scripts, lectured internationally from Denmark to India, and given readings from Adelaide to Puerto Rico to Helsinki and Igloolik. For thirty years he taught literature and creative writing at colleges and universities in Canada, the United States and Germany. Now retired from teaching, his former students include such accomplished writers as Myrna Kostash, Aritha van Herk, Thomas Wharton and Katherine Govier.
Wiebe was called the first major Mennonite writer to place his community’s experience in a broader framework. Mennonites assert the fundamental authority of Scripture, especially the New Testament, as a practical guide to life. But while Wiebe imbues his work with a deep moral seriousness, his focus has always been on narrative. “I never consciously think of writing a so-called Christian novel. I don’t think Albert Camus ever thought of writing an existentialist novel, either. I think of getting at, of building, a story.” As a prairie writer, he has often concerned himself with Native stories, feeling place of birth to be more important than blood ancestry. “Those Mennonite villages in Russia are my heritage, but not my world. The world I feel and sense in my bones is the bush of northern Saskatchewan, of prairie Canada.” Native spirituality, with its vital links to the physical world, has always attracted him. But his fiction manages to transcend nationality and locale to explore the struggles of communities and individuals; his books and stories have been translated into nine European languages, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Hindi.
Whatever Wiebe’s focus in a given work, he has always chosen ambitious themes, and his work rewards readers with an intensity seldom rivalled. He is a voice of Canadian fiction that cannot be ignored, and whose work promises to endure.
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