Under a Prairie Sky

By Tannis Sprott

The atmosphere was electric, the show was essentially sold out, the applause was thunderous as Winnipeg gave a rousing welcome to Richard Ford and David Bergen on the Main Stage Tuesday evening. They were reading from their new novels, Ford’s Canada and Bergen’s The Age of Hope, both of which are set on the Canadian prairie. The large crowd listened with an intensity that was palpable in the room, soaking up every word as the authors discussed the journeys of their main characters.

We accompany Bergen’s Hope Koop through five decades of her life living in the small Mennonite town of Eden as she struggles to define and accept who she is. Ford introduces us to Dell Parsons, a 15 year old American boy who is abandoned after his parents are arrested for bank robbery. In order to avoid his becoming a ward of the state, Dell is smuggled across the border into Saskatchewan to live with Arthur Remlinger, another ex-American with a mysterious past. He ends up living in an isolated shack in the dying town of Partreau, doing odd jobs for Remlinger.

There was a third character present in the room that night that was woven through the lives and stories of both Dell and Hope, the prairie, in all its wonder and beauty and sparseness and isolation. The prairie acts as a mirror, reflecting an emptiness within each of the main characters. Even though Hope was born and raised in the prairie, she never feels like she belongs in that little town. She senses that she is different from those around her, and struggles with that difference her entire life. Dell, as the son of an Air Force captain moving from base to base, also has never felt he belonged anywhere. His isolation becomes even more potent when he is abandoned in a foreign country. He pushes aside his fear and worry by focusing on the work he is assigned, but at night, as he sits outside his shack alone in the great openness under the prairie sky that offers nowhere to hide, all that uncertainty comes flooding back. His soul is empty, he can never go back to being the person he was before but has no idea how to move forward either. And all of this punctuated by a back drop of stunning photography by Mike Grandmaison, pictures of such beauty as to stop your breath.

Then, the audience has the immense privilege to eavesdrop on the conversation between Ford and Bergen, as they compared notes on the process of writing, on describing the arc of a person’s life and honouring the empty spaces in that life as well as the action. They were both adamant that you could write about something that you had not personally experienced. After all, the words “woman”, “housewife” and “mother” don’t appear anywhere on David Bergen’s resume, and although Richard Ford was once a 15 year old boy, his parents never robbed a bank or abandoned him. It is the incredible gift of imagination and a healthy dose of daring that allows authors to tell other people’s stories. The wonder of a novel is that it asks the reader to pay attention, to be drawn in and to honour those stories. We were certainly held in rapt attention that night..