BC Booklook Review - Swedes' Ferry

A story for Dolores: BC Booklook review of Swedes' Ferry
Reviewed by: Julian Ross

Allan Safarik tells a bedtime story for his beloved wife about a borderland bank heist gone awry.

Some stories take years of planning and research. Others rise to the surface, unbidden, like a geyser. Allan Safarik never anticipated Swede's Ferry (Coteau $19.95). But so much of life that matters, such as love and death, is unexpected.

Having shifted his life from the West Coast to Saskatchewan, Allan Safarik recently co-wrote a book about his father's sixty years in the fishing industry, Bluebacks and Silver Brights, his seventeenth title since 1975—all poetry and non-fiction.

Now he has written a "rogue western" with enough bawdy humour, .44 calibre Colts, Appaloosas and pots of cowboy coffee to make you want to saddle up and go for a ride.

Set in 1894, in the porous borderlands between Manitoba and North Dakota, Swede's Ferry is a cracker of a first novel about a bank heist gone wrong—all thanks to four words from his ailing wife, poet and editor Dolores Reimer: "Tell me a story."

Specifically, she asked for a story about the prairies.

"He came into the country on a stolen horse," he replied.

"That's a good start," she said. "Now go and write me a first chapter."

As a boy growing up in Burnaby, Safarik had devoured pulp westerns and recently he had edited collections of western stories. It also didn't hurt that he and Reimer live in an historic house on the Louis Riel Trail in Dundurn. Safarik poured his heart into the new work, sometimes working 12 to 15 hours a day, enjoying the rollicking ride.

"It was such a joyful experience writing this book," he said.

While the writing has a freshness of a tall tale, Safarik also focuses his poet's eye on quirky details in his fictional world of travelling preachers who are actually conmen, and prostitutes who double as undercover detectives.

Well-drawn characters include historical figures like financial mogul James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway, and William Pinkerton of the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency. These are mixed with memorable creations like the horse traders Bud Quigley and Alphonse Pointed Stick, and Les Simpson, the conflicted protagonist who is forced to lead a double life.

Here's Jiggs Dubois, the sleazy Pinkerton agent, sizing up the horse trader Bud Quigley: "Dubois stroked his chin whiskers and his shark eyes seemed to glow, staring into Bud's face as if he was trying to empty the old man's brain of its content."

It's all a far cry from Blackfish magazine which Allan Safarik and Brian Brett founded in the 1970s, a thoroughly West Coast mag that evolved into Blackfish Press. Based in White Rock, they published a combination of beautiful, limited-edition books and trade paperbacks in a literary list that included poets Pat Lowther, Al Purdy, and Jim Green.

Safarik's place in B.C. literature is already assured. Now he has made his mark on the prairies, following in the not-always-wild west fiction path of Guy Vanderhaege. It's a double life: Safarik's next novel will be set in the gritty Vancouver of the 1950's, inside the corrupt police department headed by Walter Mulligan, and he's also contemplating a sequel to Swede's Ferry.

Dolores Reimer died of cancer in April of 2013; Swede's Ferry was published in October of 2013.

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