Saskatoon StarPhoenix Review - Bone Coulee

Bone Coulee shoots for redemption
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson

In Bone Coulee, Beechy writer Larry Warwaruk's latest novel, Mac Chorniak, a mostly retired farmer in a small, central Saskatchewan town, looks to be living an enviable life. He's raised a family and is now enjoying the antics of his rodeo-riding grandson, also a farmer. Trouble is, Mac was involved in a crime years ago. It hasn't faded from his conscience and now it's again part of his consciousness.

Everything seems to be happening at once in the small Prairie town of Duncan. This year's annual sports fair and rodeo will also feature a major celebration of the town's anniversary, plus a dedication of a cairn on MAc's land honouring the First Nations people who once used his bone coulee as a buffalo jump. A big CBC crew with a well-known reporter is coming out from Toronto to cover that event and, while here, do a little nosing around about the way things are going in rural Saskatchewan, with technological advances, changing farming practices, Native land claims, and all.

On top of these things, a pair of Native women has moved into town and taken up residence close to Mac. They are a mother and daughter, here because the rent is cheap and Duncan is close to a bigger town where the daughter teaches art at the community college.

The duaghter, Angela, is part of the new Saskatchewan reality. She's a university grad with a good job and she begins to pursue business opportunities in Duncan with Mac's daughter-in-law: They're about to open a boutique to coincide with the town's festivities. Angela's mother, Roseanna, is not so ready to throw herself into the new community. She has a huge resentment against this town and, though Mac doesn't recognize the woman, she is the nightmare he's been running from for years.

In the 1950s, when Mac and his pals were teenagers, they got into the homebrew after the annual sports day and went for the Native girl Mac had made eyes with at the fair, and for some of her friends. The girl's brother rose up to protect them and was killed in the resulting melee. The right palms were greased and no one was even charged with the death. Mac has lived uncomfortably with the knowledge of their deed all these years and through the course of this novel makes clumsy attempts to atone for his crime.

And Warwaruk shows he's well aware of his protagonist's clumsiness, but that doesn't stop him from making Mac a reluctantly involved white man when it comes to race relations, crusading on the part of something he's not quite sure of and leaving some of his old friends behind. On top of Mac's gestures -- such as forming an elder-student relationship with Angela, standing up for Indian hunting rights against a white mob and coming down on the side of First Nations land claims -- this relatively short novel is also packed with every issue, complaint, stereotype and sore point that continues to afflict small Prairie towns.

Besides the usual business of declining rural populations and agribusiness, Mac and Angela have a conversation about farm chemicals, which she manages to link to the gas chambers of the Nazis. Then there's talk around town about growth hormones and antibiotics in cattle, about recycling and using biodiesel, the high cost of prescription drugs for the elderly, anger over "fem-type politicians in Ottawa" introducing the gun registry and the Toronto CBC reporter actually blurting out her amazement that there is culture in rural Saskatchewan. You can always make milage on hating Toronto. On top of that, the novel's action plays out against a background of a provincial election, with  various citizens acting as mouthpieces for NDP or Sask. Party slogans.

Yes, it's a very ambitious novel as Mac Chorniak desperately seeks redemption through a woman with the name of an angel and her angry mother, who, by the way, is not on the same schedule of forgiveness as Mac. At times all these righteous causes and concerns give the novel the feel of a pamphlet rather than a story, but in a world of politicians who often take the low road in matters of race relations to garner votes from the uninformed, and a modern wave of amnesia surrounding the agreements laid out in the numbered treaties, Warwaruk's novel is a good thing.

Better some clumsy attempts at redemption and building bridges than staying closed in with our anger and ignorance, crying to our politicians to build more walls.x

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