30 Novels, day 6: Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear
When I first read this novel in my early twenties, the west that I thought I knew suddenly looked a whole lot bigger. The land itself became more real to me, more alive. The history of my country proved to be darker and more complex than I had imagined or wanted to know. The novel did for me what a great work of literature does: it changed my way of seeing, so that I had no choice but to carry its vision back into the world outside the book.
The novel weaves a multifaceted portrait of the Plains Cree chief whose name translates into English as Big Bear. We see him first through the eyes of white treaty negotiators, who want him to sign a piece of paper he can’t read. A document that will give them ownership over the land, an idea that makes no sense to Big Bear: “No one can choose for only himself a piece of the Mother Earth. She is. And she is for all that live, alike.”
We see the life of Big Bear’s River People as it was on the eve of its vanishing: a rich, vibrant life that dwindles and comes apart as its absolute lifesource, the buffalo, vanishes from the plains and steel rails slice across the earth. In exchange for signing away his people’s freedom to live as they have for millennia, Big Bear’s people will be given food and a small parcel of land to call their own. This is the temptation, and the impossible choice, of Big Bear. His people are hungry. Their way of life is vanishing. Yet saving them means ending that way of life forever.
Wiebe draws attention to the fact that this is not the story of Big Bear but rather one possible recreation of history. He does this through multiple narratives and textual sources, so that the ground always shifts beneath the reader, and history is seen as a gathering (or better a struggle) of viewpoints that no one stands outside of. And yet there’s one omission in this struggle of voices: Wiebe never has Big Bear narrate his own story. He won’t put words in his mouth. He won’t make Big Bear “sign” yet another piece of paper he cannot read.
Illustration: Big Bear at Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, 1884