Rudy Wiebe, admired and revered for both his fiction and non-fiction, has been writing for publication since the 1950s. In that time, he has naturally accumulated drawers full of fugitive pieces: lectures, talks, prefaces, newspaper articles. Where the Truth Lies interprets the category “essays” rather broadly, but certainly digs down into the mind and methodology of a figure whose books, without exception, deserve close attention and always repay the reader’s effort.
The new volume incorporates a discontinuous thread of autobiography (one of the few literary genres Wiebe has not attempted at full length); his scattered recollections of “the only lifetime I presently know I have” are inevitably connected to his religious beliefs. Wiebe’s parents were Mennonites who fled Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1930 and homesteaded in northern Saskatchewan. He grew up speaking Low German, High German, and English. At the University of Alberta he wanted to write his master’s dissertation on violence in Romeo and Juliet (“I still think a blood-feud is a stupid basis for a play”). His adviser told him that many people write bad papers on Shakespeare, “but perhaps only you can write a fine novel about Canadian Mennonites.”
That suggestion led to Wiebe’s first book, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962). Its plot, which turns on an unwanted pregnancy, scandalized the Mennonite Brethren. Pierre Berton wished to interview him on air, the author writes, “but the MB Conference still forbade its members from having a television in their home, and to do a national TV interview would have been especially anti-church and confrontational.” Wiebe spent the next five years in the U.S.
Also in these pages, Wiebe recalls the origins of his best-known novel, The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), about the eponymous Cree leader: “Beneath the giant slagheap left by the heroic white history of the fur trade and police and homesteader and rancher and railroad builder, beneath and in all that, is the story of this singular life. Can I dig it out? Will I dare to look at it once I have, if I dare, unearthed it?” The same intense emotional archaeology seems to have surfaced in The Scorched-Earth People (1977), about Louis Riel, and A Discovery of Strangers (1994), about the Franklin expedition, and it paid off: the first and third of these novels won Governor General’s Literary Awards.
Other portions of this collection remind us that Wiebe is both a Canadian federalist and a staunch regionalist, and a person deeply concerned with aboriginal affairs. He disdains urban life (“the most interesting frontier for Canadian fiction is not in its cities”) while making an exception for Edmonton. He looks northward and westward, believing that Canadian fiction is “especially suited to exposing” a pair of national myths: “our classless non-ethnicity and our widely proclaimed non-racism.”
In answering a magazine questionnaire about his spiritual self, Wiebe writes that “none of us choose our ancestors, and I have at times found my ancestral lineage, often obscure, [to be nevertheless] stimulating beyond measure.” One doesn’t need to share such feelings to admire him as a person of moral and ethical force, like some 19th-century abolitionist. Such is the kind of writer he is. As he says at one point, “Anger, even imaginative anger at one’s own ignorance, is hardly enough emotion to sustain years of work.”