Warren Cariou's Lake of the Prairies is a beautifully written memoir about time and place and the nostalgia of a childhood growing up on the edge of the northern prairie in the parkland¨a relatively uncelebrated area of Saskatchewan that is mostly dense forests, muskeg, rocky outcrops, marshes and lakes. Cariou's maternal grandparents were immigrants who came to the harsh country near Meadow Lake and carved out pasture from the raw treed land. His family sank their roots into the place and Cariou grew up with his family legacy, particularly as remembered and influenced by his father, still relatively intact. Cariou is a skillful writer who weaves his father's anecdotal adventures along with his own to recreate a marvelous pastiche about traveling to various locations in the bush. His mother and father, revering the outdoors, eventually turned to farming and the young Cariou and his siblings reaped the benefits. This is a book about nature as much as about anything. The fishing stories and the trekking around the countryside episodes, such as shooting at fish in winter under the ice, tell us much about the writer. He succeeds because he has a powerful lyrical way of describing the atmosphere and the details. He is an observer who is wonderfully educated about nature and as he grows up, he tells about his friendships and his adventures in an increasingly wider realm.
The young Cariou grows up in a bustling community of mostly immigrant European stock, white people, interacting with indians and the Metis. Many people are of mixed blood and it is really difficult to tell them apart. In general, a mindset determines how people feel about themselves. The result is a divided community with strong feelings of fear and distrust lurking in the background. These elements creep into Cariou's life when he discovers more about his own family.
Cariou is the product of hard working homesteaders who gradually merged into the countryside. Their story became another chapter in a country's history already steeped with the stories of hundreds of years of Cree life, and, by now, the well-told tale of discrimination against native and Metis people by the dominant culture. It is a story that, with few variations, was played out in many other parts of North America. Children grew up exposed to the lore of aboriginals who were seen as noble people who loved the earth, but in real life were often treated as lesser beings who had to be kept in their place or condescended to. Cariou, the curious boy, in an idyllic childhood setting, digging up stone hammers and arrow heads, uncovering the romance of the past, is at the same time confronted by the harsh reality of racism in his school life and in his community. As he grows and enters maturity, he increasingly realizes how imperfect the world is. His recollections of his school days and his honest portrayal of how his Indian school mates, especially the girls, were demeaned by the non-indian boys, is a hair raising account of how racism, the conviction that white man is superior to the native, was institutionalized and sanctioned.
The young Cariou doesn't take part but he also fails to speak out. His admission is the honest reflection of a writer who traces the formation of a moral and historical understanding in himself, as he draws upon his own experience to explain a great deal about how and why people discriminate against others. This is a simply told, multi-layered story that tells itself via the various unfoldings of the writer's own life. In one fascinating section he tells us how he stumbled upon the fact of his own Metis ancestry:
My aunt said all this as if it were a historical curiosity rather than something that might have a real effect on Grandma's descendants. But to me, having grown up in a community that was hypersensitive about the divisions between native and white, this information was unsettling to say the least. What did it mean about me? I remembered the Fiddler boys chasing me through town, yelling in Cree. At the time we all thought we knew what sides we were on.
Cariou, the thinking man is forced to delve further into his community's past when he learns that his childhood Indian friend, "Master Corporal Clayton Matchee of the Fifth Airborne Divisions has been found hanging by a bootlace in a prison cell at the Canadian Forces peacekeeping base at Belet Huen, Somalia." Matchee was a central figure in the incident which involved the torture and murder by Canadian soldiers of Shidane Arone, a young black Somalian. Near the end of his story Cariou attempts to visit Matchee who is now a patient in a mental hospital at North Battleford. Cariou writes poignantly and tragically about Matchee and racism in a chapter that leaves this reader with a devastating kind of understanding.
Cariou has given us a personal story about his family, skillfully injecting a second story about the way people live in his community and how they interact with one another. This incredibly crafted Canadian book might be about South Africa or many other countries. But no, this is Canada. Bustling Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, a small town with big shoulders. Warren Cariou, in his coming-of-age memoir, writes like a naturalist/historian on a mission from God. The result is a distinctive style, a well-paced tale that leaves nothing out. Lake of the Prairie, a superb memoir about place, is also a powerful document about the human condition.
Cariou is not a writer of the plains¨his country is north in the boreal forest, the moose pastures, the many lakes from here to there, the endless miles of muskeg. The result is another remarkable volume in the Saskatchewan tradition that includes Sharon Butala and Trevor Herriot. Warren Cariou has written a book that stands for the place he lives. ˛
Allan Safarik is the author of Bird Writer's Handbook recently issued by Exile Editions.