Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Wanted Dead or Alive

Why the Western endures

Bob Armstrong

The American Western in Canadian Literature

Joel Deshaye

University of Calgary Press

414 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

After Joel Deshaye moved to St. John’s, to take up a position at Memorial University, his partner found two Young Buffalo Bill pistols buried in the garden. Had the original owners of the toy guns ever seen the unbroken grasslands they were meant to evoke? “The boys probably had no memory of Buffalo Bill,” Deshaye writes. “They probably knew him instead as a generic cowboy, and I imagine that the nostalgia of their role-playing with his name was the nostalgia of their father remembering his youth, as if once upon a time he had been a Buffalo Bill in another country.” Such nostalgia for a past one has never experienced is the starting point for The American Western in Canadian Literature.

Deshaye looks at the Western through several lenses, including that of the American scholar Richard Slotkin, who has suggested that the lack of constraints on the frontier and the struggle to dispossess Indigenous people of land led many settlers to abandon certain European aspects of their character, while developing new, more violent ones. “The Western needs to be acknowledged as Western fiction that depends on violence,” Deshaye writes, “usually individual acts of violence that are trigger-happily protective or retributive, but sometimes the more general cultural violence involved in the engagement with First Nations, Native Americans, Mexicans, and — crucially — the land itself, or ‘Indians’ as metonyms of the land.”

After some introductory thoughts on theoretical debates involving national literatures and genre boundaries, Deshaye considers how Indigenous authors in this country have approached the Western, beginning with Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, from 1993. That novel — a magic realist tale that interweaves traditional creation stories — features several figures from literature, history, and popular culture. At one point, King’s characters insert themselves into a John Wayne movie, killing the Duke. Discussing the scene in the context of earlier works, including Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, from 1970, Deshaye argues that “King’s vision of John Wayne re-frames Canadian Westerns about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as a collective fantasy of the death of American celebrity — or at least an attempted subversion of American pop-cultural influence.” This seems a great deal to hang on a novel that came out decades after John Wayne became a countercultural punching bag. Surely the earlier fascination with doomed outlaws exhibited by Ondaatje, bpNichol, and Paulette Jiles can more easily be tied to the boom in rebellious anti-heroes that began in the 1950s and to the specifically Canadian fascination with “beautiful losers.” At any rate, the fact that Deshaye needs to jump ahead to works discussed in a much later chapter suggests that, however admirable his desire to foreground Indigenous voices, a fully chronological structure would have made more sense for this book.

Deshaye also looks at the poet Jordan Abel’s Un/inhabited and Injun, which won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017. In these two collections, Abel took texts from ninety-one novels in the public domain, including some by two of the earliest Western writers, Owen Wister and Zane Grey. By assembling words into collages — about land and ownership and about the pejorative “Injun”— Abel reflects on cultural appropriation while also addressing the appropriation of space that undergirds the concept of a wild, open frontier.

When you call him that, smile.

H. Armstrong Roberts, 1952; Alamy

Throughout, Deshaye places the written Canadian Western in the context of Hollywood. That makes his discussion of Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq’s Maliglutit especially fascinating (the Inuktitut title means “followers”). The 2016 film echoes the John Ford classic The Searchers, in which a frontiersman played by Wayne obsessively tracks a niece kidnapped in a Comanche raid. As their own characters search for family members kidnapped in a raid, Kunuk and Ungalaaq reimagine aspects of the form. When their hero, Kuanana, uses a gun, for instance, there are no quick-draw feats or limitless bullets. When he finds himself out of ammunition and about to be beaten to death, his wife, Ailla, saves him by stabbing the main kidnapper. In the context of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Ailla’s action “encourages women to fight back.” Indeed, Deshaye sees her as “as much the cowboy as her husband is.” He also argues that “her mastery of her own phallic symbol when her husband’s is failing is a partial revision of the Western’s strong association between men and guns.” That may be the case, but the scene is hardly the first time a woman in film has picked up a weapon to save her man (consider High Noon, where the pacifist wife, played by Grace Kelly, saves her husband, a lawman played by Gary Cooper, with a well-timed shot).

Eventually, Deshaye jumps back in time to examine the Western’s roots in Canada. He begins with Charles Gordon, a Presbyterian minister who wrote a series of international bestsellers under the pseudonym Ralph Connor. Despite their Canadian settings, Connor’s books, including Black Rock and The Sky Pilot, both from the late 1890s, were so successful in the U.S. that he was invited, in 1905, to meet Theodore Roosevelt — a president who used his relatively brief time as a North Dakota rancher to burnish his own Western bona fides.

Connor’s novels, as well as those by the lesser-known H. A. Cody, arrived on the scene not long after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous lecture on the closing of the frontier at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The two Canadians were among those who, Deshaye writes, “helped to keep alive the myths of the West, including the imperialistic myth of continual territorial expansion and settlement — in other words, Manifest Destiny.” They did so by shifting the focus north.

In Connor’s Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police and Cody’s The Long Patrol, both from 1912, a new kind of hero emerges in place of the cowboy and the sheriff: the Mountie. With references to the University of Winnipeg’s Candida Rifkind and to Pierre Berton’s Hollywood’s Canada, Deshaye rightly observes that Canada’s Northwest became a popular setting for American films in the early twentieth century, with a surprising number featuring Mountie protagonists. But given his emphasis on violence as essential to the Western — including his invocation of Slotkin’s well-known concept of “regeneration through violence”— his attention to Connor, especially, is a bit of an odd choice.

With Black Rock, Connor confined violence to saloon punch-ups; the closest thing to a shootout is when the local Mountie, improbably named Stonewall Jackson, confiscates a pistol from an American gambler. Corporal Cameron is the story of a Scottish immigrant who joins the NWMP and finds redemption for past disgrace by preventing an “Indian war” during the North‑West Resistance of 1885. Cody, for his part, presents his Mountie hero as quicker on the draw than Connor’s.

The arrival of pulp fiction coincided with that of the “outlaw-lawman” anti-hero. Deshaye maps this transition through his reading of rare domestic works produced during the Second World War. Canadian comic books, true crime, and Western pulps filled a gap in the market after the War Exchange Conservation Act banned the importation of foreign pulps, ostensibly to keep money at home to support the war effort. Into that gap strode Smokey Carmain, an American lawman who wanders the Southwest in a series of magazine stories by the pseudonymous Luke Price. Unlike Connor’s idealized Mounties, Smokey doesn’t subscribe to the school of “Ask questions first and shoot much later, if at all.” On multiple occasions, he explains the origin of his nickname: “There ain’t nothing I like better than the smell of gunsmoke.” Elsewhere, he is described as “the guy who has to breathe gunsmoke to keep livin’ ” and “the smoke-eating sheriff.” Smokey has a passing resemblance to the wanderers of much later works. Like them, he has no family and a general “indifference to romance.” He is closely bonded with his horse, Pancho, however, and kills a man who steals the stallion. Like other outsider heroes, Smokey sides with homesteaders and small-time cattle producers against big ranchers and their banker allies.

The “outlaw-lawman” who defends the little guy from the cattleman is, of course, a trope made famous by Alan Ladd in the popular film Shane, from 1953. “Smokey Carmain is a typical but early, and thus prototypical or emergent, anti-hero of the Canadian Western genre,” Deshaye writes. “His parodically self-referential self-naming gives me reason to suggest that he is on the train toward the derailment that is postmodernism.” Truly postmodern work would come to the fore with Margaret Atwood’s poem “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy,” from 1968, as well as Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and bpNichol’s The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid, from 1970. Deshaye examines these works, alongside Paulette Jiles’s The Jesse James Poems, from 1988, in the context of “ghostmodernism,” a theoretical term for “postmodernism with ghosts.” (Atwood’s poem doesn’t have a ghost in it, but it does have a supernatural element: the landscape itself addressing a cowboy who personifies America, its militarism, and its disrespect for the environment.)

Ghosts certainly play a prominent role in ideas of the West, which have long included the “vanishing Indian” conceit and spectral memories of the bison that once roamed the plains. Indeed, it’s almost inevitable that a genre that began by looking back — to an idealized world forever cut off by railways, telegraph lines, and land surveys — would have a soft spot for spirits. Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, from 1985, speaks to this motif; the steely-eyed star plays a supernatural avenger conjured up by a girl in a downtrodden mining town.

After discussing two decades’ worth of postmodernism, Deshaye delves into the book that launched the current wave of Canadian Westerns: Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy, which won a Governor General’s Award in 1996. “Because of the relative accessibility of its more linear or at least more conventionally framed stories,” he argues, “The Englishman’s Boy is probably the most influential novel in renewing general and historical interest in the Western.” Again, Deshaye invokes Slotkin’s “regeneration through violence”— but with a twist. The story is actually an example of “degeneration through violence,” as it focuses on the title character’s breaking down after the Cypress Hills Massacre. Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing, published six years later, presents another example of this reimagined degeneration with the syphilitic Addington Gaunt. But it’s a bit of a reach to see anything specifically Canadian in the idea that exposure to violence results in lasting harm. This realization is more likely a sign of the growing awareness of post-traumatic stress that grew out of the Vietnam War.

Several recent examples have focused on environmental destruction and the environment’s revenge. In The Last Crossing, for one, Gaunt doesn’t ultimately pay for his crimes at the hand of a good guy with a gun. Rather, he is killed by a grizzly bear after trying to shoot it with a bow and arrow. “Vanderhaeghe prefers the violence to be natural, environmental, a violence accepted and not driven by the individual person, in a gesture that mostly contravenes the dictates of the genre,” Deshaye suggests. In The Outlander, a woman on the run narrowly escapes death in the 1903 Frank Slide, an event that the author, Gil Adamson, presents as nature’s response to the destruction wrought by coal miners digging into unstable Turtle Mountain. Deshaye characterizes the 2007 novel as “a revenge story, a Gaian response to the extractive industries that parallels the woman’s murder of her husband.”

Deshaye ends his book by asking why so many Westerns, as well as other books that incorporate Western themes, have been written in Canada in recent years. One possible answer lies in an argument in his introductory chapter: “As with Frankenstein and Disneyland, the subtext is modernity and its dynamics; the Western becomes a vestige of cultural imperialism disguised by cosmopolitan immigrants to appear (counterintuitively) modern.” A more palpable answer comes several hundred pages later, when he concludes, “We readers of Westerns can see that the genre’s emotional appeal is not only that of longing but also that of cathartic violence. . . . We crave the moral clarity of an ending, but we also yearn to keep a simpler life alive.”

Writing about the sudden transformation of the West is a way to confront unsettling questions of major social, economic, technological, and environmental change. We look to the past both because it is lost to us and because it is still with us. Even in Canada, the Western “is a nationalistic reminder of progress or, more accurately, the renewal of a myth of progress.” Perhaps, though, the genre might better be described as a reminder of the price of progress and the unequal way in which the bill is divided.

Canadian Westerns have, by turns, praised the courage of missionaries and Mounties taming the wilds, entertained readers with violent tales about defenders of the little guy, questioned the process of national mythmaking, turned assumptions about empty land on their head, portrayed the impact of trauma on individuals and nations, and spoken for the environment.

Since the ’70s, especially, the genre has been dominated by “revisionist” works: films and books that seek to overturn the progress-minded, nostalgic, rosy-hued vision of yesteryear (never mind that not all earlier Westerns were like that). But it’s also telling that the revisionist approach has not soured readers’ appetite for such stories. Nowhere does Deshaye mention Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, which eschewed the traditional formula of easily delineated good guys and bad guys, morality-play violence, and satisfying conclusions. Nevertheless, it sold millions in print and was watched in an estimated 26 million homes when adapted as a miniseries in 1989. People who liked the old style of Western still loved it.

Many a reader can simultaneously absorb the moral ambivalence, the dark traumas, the tropes turned upside down — in other words, the evolving Western — so long as there are horses and bison, pistols and rifles, tall mountains and endless prairies. The Western’s allure is not unlike the appeal of such anti-war films as Apocalypse Now and The Hurt Locker. As an Onion headline once reported, “Peace Activist Has to Admit Barrett .50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Is Pretty Cool.” Ditto the Colt Peacemaker.

Bob Armstrong is the author of Prodigies, an award-winning Western, and, since 2002, the speech writer for Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor.

Related Letters and Responses

Mel Simoneau Gatineau, Quebec