Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Wild Geese" by Martha Ostenso

Literary modernism had to arrive in the prairie provinces sometime. In 1925 it struck with a bang in the form of Martha Ostenso's classic novel "Wild Geese."

It's an evil book, a study of non-stop emotional abuse in a pioneer family. Caleb Gare, an up-and-coming farmer -- uses subtle psychology as a daily torture against his wife and children, primarily because he loves the power, partially because he views his family as free labour...but underneath it all he does it because it AMUSES him. And that's what makes the book really wicked.

"Wild Geese" is mainly told from the point of view of Lind Archer, a new teacher in the community who is billeted with the Gare family. She arrives when Caleb's power is already entrenched, and she watches in amazement as it spreads unchecked throughout the neighbourhood. Everybody hates Caleb but they are either too unsophisticated or too good-natured to stop the terrible, quiet building of his influence.

Caleb's power comes mainly from discovering secrets, leveraging them to force other farmers to grant him favours or give him land. Caleb controls Amelia, his wife, with the knowledge of a previous infidelity which lead to an illegitimate child. Amelia is terrified that the child -- Mark -- will someday find out that he is the bastard child of a poor farmer's wife, and the fact that Mark arrives in the neighbourhood near the beginning of the book makes the situation much more immediate.

You see, every time one of Caleb's children engages in an act of rebellion, Caleb unleashes a torrent of threats against Amelia, chief among them that he will tell Mark who his real parents were, thus ruining his life. The children don't know this secret but they pity the fate of their mother and -- more importantly -- they are convinced that this "secret" might involve them somehow; they know how vengeful Caleb can be when crossed, so they live in perpetual submission, worried that the mysterious and dreadful secret could come out and make their lives even worse.

As a modern reader I had difficulty getting worked up about this secret; in fact, I kept waiting for somebody to say "Hey, Caleb, nobody CARES who Mark's parents were." But the book is so sincere about this issue that I can only assume that parentage WAS a make-or-break issue for small-town Canadians in the 1920s. And since the whole book revolves around this issue I had to get over those feelings pretty quick.

95% of "Wild Geese" is brilliant, an elaborately-constructed showcase of Caleb's ability to terrorize and manipulate those around him. I was totally absorbed in the story and had difficulty putting it down, I just couldn't WAIT to see how Caleb's influence would eventually be thwarted.

But therein lies one of the book's problems: there are a half dozen explicitly revealed set-ups for Caleb's eventual fall, but the one that's finally used comes mostly out of nowhere and has no bearing on the characters themselves. Rather than have the abused children, the resentful neighbours, or the subversive "big city" influence of Lind Archer bring the old tyrant down, he is eventually laid low in a way that has a BIT of poetic justice but does no credit to the hard work of the protagonists themselves. This was most unsatisfying.

I also found the shifting points-of-view to be sketchy at times and the ham-handed symbolism was downright annoying -- the lonely call of the wild geese, the comforting shroud of romantic rain, the oil-filled curse of the flax, the nearsighted daughter -- and while all this could be excused by the fact that Ostenso was a first-time author, it has recently come to light that the book was effectively co-written by Douglas Durkin.

Still, it's a beautiful, torturous work, and I'm glad I picked it up (entirely on a whim) and finally got around to reading it.

PS: If you've read the book, consider the situation of Charlie Gare, Caleb's youngest child. While the other children are fully-fleshed characters with lots of dialog and "book presence," Charlie is only ever mentioned in passing and he is laughably forgotten in the final chapters -- his masquerade ball costume is the only one that isn't described (except that it has a "peaked cap") and his fate is completely skipped at the end.

Do you think that Ostenso only put him in at the last minute when she realized that Caleb needed an even number of children to do the threshing?


Jonnlink said...

i feel that charlie is, for the most part, left out of the story because he is primarily exempt from the suffering inflicted on the other characters by Caleb Gare. He is the pampered child that Caleb plays against the other children. A few examples are when Charlie brings home a gift for charlie and presents it too him in front of Jude, saying that he would have gotten her something if she had needed it. He seems to "overlook" the fact that she needs new shoes. another example is when he offers to bring Martin to church (a rare privilage) but then brings Charlie instead.

Anonymous said...

What is the closest town to the Gare Farm?

Anonymous said...

I believe the closest town was Yellow Post, although the community as a whole was named Oeland.

Anonymous said...

what was Mark Jordan's job before coming to Oeland to help Klovacz?