The title of Warren Cariou’s foreword to Welcome to Canada, a volume of David Carpenter’s new and selected stories, is “You Are Now Entering Carpenter Country.” Carpenter’s fictional landscape – located mainly in the outposts of rural Saskatchewan and B.C. – is less firmly entrenched in the Canadian literary psyche than the small-town southern Ontario setting commonly referred to as “Munro Country.” The reason for this is something of a mystery: Carpenter’s writing – stark naturalism honed with a scalpel’s precision – is pristine, and it deserves a wider audience.
Perhaps Carpenter’s relative obscurity has to do with his dominant themes: hunting, fishing, and masculine camaraderie. But Carpenter’s male protagonists – from Lester Babcock, the naive American who embarks on a fishing expedition in the remote Saskatchewan countryside in the collection’s title story, to the Jewish footballers in “Protection,” to Robert, the unhappy psychologist and would-be musician in “Meeting Cute at the Anger Motel” – are all intensely flawed characters: their surface bravado disguises a deep-seated unease and an unfulfilled desire for some sort of redemption or rescue.
Indeed, Carpenter’s women often come to the aid of the male characters. Eulalie, the wife of Lester’s native fishing guide in “Welcome to Canada,” takes the decisive action against a marauding bear in what turns into a kind of rural Saskatchewan retelling of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In “Turkle,” Eleanor Foster is forced to hitch up a wagon and trek into a snowstorm to rescue her husband and two children when the family’s Model T gets stuck.
The relationship between Carpenter’s characters and the natural world is no less fraught. In “The Snow Fence” – one of the collection’s best stories – the titular edifice is meant to separate the tourists in Jasper Park from the “army of bears” that inhabits the area. This hubristic attempt to impose human will on nature – by essentially turning the bears into a tourist attraction – is folly, Carpenter suggests; erecting the snow fence inevitably leads to tragedy and death, as if “the whole wilderness rear[ed] up to rebuke” the people responsible.
In another story, a female hunter refuses to shoot a majestic buck she’s named Appletree (much to the consternation of her fellow hunters) because of her reverence for the animal. “Humans did not always co-operate,” she thinks, “but animals did.” In the field one day, she encounters a moose calf and touches it on the flank; the calf “scarcely acknowledged her presence, the surest guarantee of her invisibility that she could hope for.”
The story of the moose calf has its origin in an incident from Carpenter’s own experience, which he relates in his memoir A Hunter’s Confession. On a hunting expedition, Carpenter encounters a grazing calf and, shouldering his rifle, reaches out to touch the animal. This moment is obviously of signal importance to the author and to his ideas about a hunter’s intimate relationship with the hunted.
Carpenter’s memoir is not so much an apologia for the practice of sport hunting; it is an attempt by one erstwhile hunter to grapple with the conflicting impulses and motivations behind the activity. Carpenter stopped hunting in 1995 after a near-death experience during which he made a deal with the universe that if he lived, he would never kill another living thing. Although he has remained true to his pledge, he retains an affinity for the hunt, and his analysis of why this should be makes for some provocative reading.
Hunting, for Carpenter, implies a kind of morality: it begins with a reverence for the animals one hunts and eschews such activities as killing endangered species or hunting out of moving vehicles. “Heartless hunting … is the enemy,” Carpenter writes, “and compassionate hunting is the answer.” While there are readers who would no doubt argue that “compassionate hunting” is a contradiction in terms, Carpenter wrestles with this apparent oxymoron. He argues convincingly that a hunter can also be a conservationist and an environmentalist, and that hunting “can lead quite naturally to a communion with nature.” Along the way, he provides illuminating background on the history of hunting, the literature dealing with the sport, the history of women in the hunt, and the importance of hunting for native communities. In the book’s final section, Carpenter notes that hunting in North America “has fallen out of favor and out of fashion,” while consumer forces distance society from the food we eat – food that “becomes anything but bloody.”
What unites A Hunter’s Confession and Welcome to Canada is the grace of Carpenter’s prose. Spare and often colloquial, Carpenter’s writing invites comparisons with Ernest Hemingway and Thomas McGuane, but his voice is his own. Despite the fact that it is one of the less-travelled areas of our literary landscape, Carpenter Country is a place well worth visiting.