Rudy Wiebe’s reputation is based on his novels and non-fiction, which have focused on Aboriginal themes and his Mennonite heritage. Though he is not widely known as a short story writer, a half-century’s worth of his efforts in this genre have now been collected in a single volume.
Divided into four sections, the 51 entries in Collected Stories showcase Wiebe’s diverse concerns. The first section, which is the most lively, includes tales of warriors, Chiefs, and the First Nations’ experiences prior to the imposition of restrictions on their land and freedom by the Crown. The other sections include stories on Mennonite history, Western Canada, and more personal character sketches. In one story, a writer discusses poetry with a potential mistress. In another, set in 1980, the voice of long-dead Alberta Premier William Aberhart castigates contemporary citizens of Rose Country for wasting their wealth. There’s even a fictional interview with Wiebe in which the Saskatchewan-born writer claims to be English.
Aesthetic critics (notably John Metcalf) have long claimed that Wiebe’s fiction betrays a wooden ear and strained earnestness, and these stories show that this claim has a certain validity. Wiebe’s parents spoke Low German, which has no word for “fiction”; the only categories for stories were “truth” and “lies.” One cannot help but notice how much of his fiction is based in fact, and wonder if the Mennonite binary view of literature hasn’t remained foundational. Elsewhere, Goethe’s German Romanticism is clearly a dominant influence, one that aligns with an interest in pre-contact Aboriginal cultures and a clearly evident sensitivity to the marginal, the weak, and the natural world.
Wiebe is one of Canada’s powerful myth makers and storytellers of the past half-century. He has not, however, been an innovator of the short story genre. His best work is full of action and adventure and grounded in historical context. Psychological or linguistic complexity is not his forte. He is a great storyteller, but not a writer of great short stories.