Childhood on the Prairies

Keith Erwin Brower – Chronicles of the Glen: Childhood Anecdotes at Poplar Glen Farms (Friesen Press, 2017)

There is a long tradition, in both fiction and non-fiction, of writing about childhood on the Canadian Prairies. Perhaps most notable are William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. Keith Erwin Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen is a welcome addition to this tradition. The book is a series of recollections about Brower’s early childhood on Poplar Glen Farms – a small family farm in eastern Alberta. There’s a natural ease to the writing and, no doubt, these stories were told and retold to children and grandchildren long before they were committed to paper. Each story carries a youthful fascination with the world. It’s infectious and as readers we share in the unfolding sense of discovery that each chapter brings.

The Canadian Prairies are defined by their seasons. There are blazing hot summers and prolonged, freezing winters. The depth of each season and their transition into one another provides a current that runs throughout the book: from the vulnerability of a small farm during a winter blizzard to picking wild mushrooms in the fertile soil of the barnyard following a summer rainstorm. Spring was a time to witness new life, whether among the livestock or in the wild. And weekly family walks through the surrounding pastures and forests were a key part of learning about nature as a child. To grow up on a farm is to grow up alongside animals and some become recurring characters in Brower’s book. There are the workhorses Lexi and Flicka, Teko the bull and Mona the mischievous dairy cow who nonetheless has a fondness for children.

Chronicles of the Glen depicts life in rural Alberta in the early 1950s. An important aspect of this book is the sweeping social and technological changes that Brower witnesses in the mid-twentieth century. The workhorses are eventually replaced with tractors, herd sires with artificial insemination and static threshing machines with combine harvesters. Yet, within all these changes Brower also describes the continuing ‘fine art’ of farming – from laying fences and building construction to rigging machinery for multiple uses. There’s a craft and ingenuity to it all. And as Brower illustrates each story these everyday practices (as well as everything else) are brought to life in his unique visual style.

Poplar Glen Farms is about 5km northwest of Wainwright, Alberta. I know the place well. My mother was born there and – full disclosure – Keith Erwin Brower is my uncle. I have many fond memories of the farm: rolling down the grassy slope in front of my grandparents’ house as a child, hockey games on the frozen pond in the sheep pen and playing in the fields and forests with my cousins. The crunch of snow underfoot while walking between houses on a crisp and starry winter night will be an abiding memory of Christmas on the farm. Throughout my childhood I had an ongoing internal debate over whether pasteurised milk or unpasteurised milk tasted better. I called them ‘town milk’ and ‘farm milk’. I’d think over the merits of each whenever I sat for breakfast around my grandparents’ table with a glass of ‘farm milk’ in hand. There’s no debate now. ‘Farm milk’ is the clear winner . . . I’m retreating into my own memories here. . . Reading this book by Uncle Keith is a reminder of the indelible link between place and memory in shaping who we are.

The town of Wainwright, Alberta was once home to Buffalo National Park which operated between 1909 and 1939. It was a state-backed attempt to preserve the plains bison (or buffalo) which were facing extinction at the opening of the 20th century. An initial herd of around 700 was brought in from Montana and within three decades the park had produced over 40,000 buffalo. However, Buffalo National Park became a victim of its own success as disease and starvation spread among the expanding herd within the bounded Park area. As Europe lurched into another war the Park was wound down and the site converted into a military base. The preservation of the plains bison speaks to a wider history of the Prairies. It’s a history wrapped up in colonialism and the devastation of peoples and cultures and wildlife. While the seasons continue to pass with seemingly eternal regularity, the Prairies have also witnessed three centuries of irrevocable change. The plains bison, for instance, will never migrate across the North American continent again. The literature on this history is as expansive as the Prairies themselves. My own reading is limited – a drop in the ancient ocean that once covered the area. Irene Ternier Gordon’s A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains offers insight into the everyday life of the Métis Peoples over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries – including the practical, cultural and eventual political significance of the plains bison. And Grant McKewan’s biography of John Ware details the life of one of Alberta’s most famous cowboys. John Ware was an African-American slave who, following the American Civil War, herded cattle across North America and eventually took up residence in what is now Alberta. Both these books depict a key period of transition in the history of the Prairies: after colonisation but before the expansion of the railway and wider settlement. Significantly, both books are also primarily based on oral history and testimony passed down through generations. Such shared stories form part of the connective tissue of the cultural history of the Prairies, whether as the living memory of pre-colonial Canada or as witness to lives lived in changing times. Brower’s book is another thread in this social fabric.

There is a certain power to childhood stories. They bring a simplicity to otherwise complex situations. And they are often imbued with a sense of awe. The title of Brower’s book is a clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. It’s a series of novels about children who discover an alternate, magical world. Narnia is full of adventure, excitement, danger and laughter. Yet, in Brower’s Chronicles of the Glen we’re reminded that such adventures don’t always need an imaginary realm. They are often right in front of us, in the here and now. Chronicles of the Glen is about the wonder of childhood and, ultimately, the joy of living.

References:

Kurelek, W., A Prairie Boy’s Winter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973)

_________, A Prairie Boy’s Summer (Toronto: Tundra Books, 1975)

Brower, J. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939 (Athabasca University Press, 2008)

Gordon, IT, A People on the Move: The Métis of the Western Plains (Surrey: Heritage House Publishing, 2009)

McKewan, G. John Ware’s Cow Country (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1973)

Lewis, CS. The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Harper Collins, 1994)

– Mark Rainey

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