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Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta

by Aritha van Herk

Mavericks, the fifth instalment in Penguin Canada’s provincial histories series, is a strange beast. Each chapter tackles a different subject in an episodic, mostly chronological format, but the history is decidedly untraditional in that it is written by a creative writer who is not a historian. And although she employs solid research techniques, Aritha van Herk uses the devices of fiction (such as a conversation between two ghosts) and the magnifying lens of personal experience to connect the narrative.

Van Herk covers a lot of ground in Mavericks. She starts with a general introductory chapter that sets out the book’s terms of reference (wherein Ontarians are referred to as “centrals”), and then makes her way through geology, the fur trade, colonization of aboriginal land, the province’s evolution from collection of trade outposts to official surveyed region, ranching, early immigration and settlement, politics, the province’s artistic sensibility (in which van Herk poses the classic question, “Does Alberta have a culture?”), and the role and place of women in both historical and contemporary Alberta society. Van Herk also examines bigger subjects in terms of their factual and contextual importance, such as the oil business, the Albertan attitude toward government, and racism.

The atypical format eventually goes too far: Mavericks ends not with the usual summation and conclusion but with a section of alphabetically ordered, Alberta-specific terms and place names. This is a fresh approach, but a somewhat abrupt way to end a book that could have used a little more needle-work to sew together its many threads. There are also some overgeneralizations here: van Herk says Albertans cherish freedom of speech and tolerate extreme views (tell that to Wiebo Ludwig or anybody else who disagrees with the oil companies), while aboriginal history is described solely in terms of the movements and results of war.

But Mavericks is dense with detail that never overwhelms, and van Herk uses her talents as a novelist to lighten what could be leaden. Her description of the function and construction – and eventual destruction – of grain elevators, for example, is lyrical and heartbreaking.