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The Literary History of Alberta, Volume One: From Writing-on-Stone to World War Two

by George Melnyk

As a reference work, this pioneering look at Alberta’s literary tradition is well researched, well organized, and at times interesting. Veteran Alberta author George Melnyk does an admirable job of tying the various strands of the province’s neglected literary origins into a single sweeping narrative, beginning with aboriginal pictographs, proceeding through the writings of explorers, missionaries, early pioneer settlers, and the first poets and novelists, and concluding with a preview of the material to be explored in Volume Two.

Along the way, readers discover that early Alberta writing is about more than just Mounties, cowboys, and the Rocky Mountains; rather, it is a varied, multicultural, multi-genre engagement with the unique landscape and social realities of a province trying to forge its own identity. Moving from well-known figures such as Ralph Connor (Canada’s best-selling author in the pre-First World War period) and Nellie McClung, to more obscure writers, like Georges Bugnet and Stephan G. Stephansson, who wrote in languages other than English, Melnyk provides a refreshingly inclusive and comprehensive account of Alberta’s largely overlooked literary canon. Volume One includes many photographs, as well as extensive endnotes and an index; clearly, the author has done his homework.

Unfortunately, much of this volume, especially early on, is marred by endless academic qualifying in which Melnyk goes to great lengths to justify his book’s existence and to explain the difficulties involved in writing any sort of history. While his efforts to include aboriginal and other races in his study are admirable, his repeated theorizing and continual references to his working method prove tiresome and ultimately incidental. As a reader of what is basically a reference work, I’m less interested in the author’s methodological approach than in the material that is the focus of his research.

Overall, Melnyk’s study is thorough and cleanly written, and works best as an introduction for readers who wish to follow their own paths through Alberta’s early literary landscape. However, this landscape, despite the author’s noble intentions, does not always make for a compelling read, as there were periods when Albertans showed little interest in producing an indigenous literature (a fact that Melnyk, to his credit, acknowledges).

Nevertheless, Volume One is a welcome addition to Canada’s cultural heritage, and lays the groundwork for what should be an equally thorough and more engaging second volume.