Margaret Sweatman, an English professor at the U of W and published author, has written numerous works dealing with Winnipeg. – Supplied
How much can we learn about the historical character of Winnipeg through its literature?
According to Colin Russell, who teaches courses on Manitoba literature in the University of Winnipeg’s English department, fiction provides readers with alternative perspectives of the historical past that focus on subjectivity.
“It’s a representation of (the writer’s) lived experience,” he said. “It’s an attempt by authors to say, ‘This is what it was like for me.’”
So, just what was it like for our city, collectively speaking?
Russell noted a few texts he thinks are among Winnipeg’s most important, including Ralph Connor’s The Foreigner (1904), Douglas Durkin’s The Magpie (1923), Gabrielle Roy’s Street of Riches (1955) and John Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death (1957).
What’s interesting about the above list, however brief and spontaneously formulated it may be, are the thematic commonalities that run through the various texts.
Two examples are the immigrant experience - such as that illustrated in Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death, in which a young Hungarian struggles to assimilate in Winnipeg’s North End - and the related theme of cultural intersection (the protagonist of Roy’s novel is a francophone Canadian living in St. Boniface, which was not a part of Winnipeg then).
Margaret Sweatman, an English professor at the U of W and published author, has written numerous works dealing with the city.
Fox (1991), her first novel, offers a fictionalized account of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 (which, incidentally, sets the backdrop for Durkin’s aforementioned earlier work, The Magpie).
“A lot of writers work towards creating a book of origins,” she said, explaining that for her and other authors, the pulling-force of the homeland is often irresistible in terms of setting.
Sweatman cited her own series of authors she finds important to Winnipeg, including Margaret Laurence who, born in Neepawa, became well-known for her fiction and poetry, such as 1949’s North Main Car, in which a tapestry of one of the city’s most culturally diverse areas is woven though the voices of various characters seen from a streetcar.
Not to mention Carol Shields who, though an American, would later move to and write about Winnipeg.
Sweatman noted various themes relating to the aboriginal experience in Winnipeg as being among the most important.
Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, an aboriginal Winnipeg-born author herself, is perhaps best known for her novel In Search of April Raintree (1983) and memoir Come Walk with Me (2009), which both deal extensively with the above themes.
“I experienced a lot of racism when I first moved to Winnipeg,” said Mosionier, who spent her childhood in St. Norbert.
According to Mosionier, she wrote In Search of April Raintree - now read widely in Winnipeg high school and university courses - as a way of addressing the social problems that surrounded her.
“Some Métis people who could pass for white had done so until they read In Search of April Raintree,” said Mosionier, who explained she was aware of some examples in which aboriginal Winnipeggers had taken up an attitude of increased pride in their cultures upon reading her novel.
Perhaps a city’s literature isn’t just shaped by its past - the craft of fiction, it seems, sometimes has the power to shape its future, too.